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Friday, Jan 31 2014 11:01 PM

Air quality: Where do we go from here?

By The Bakersfield Californian

Most people know about our recent bout with acute air pollution, one that's made this a record-setting winter for dirty air in the Central Valley. Likewise, many know that the blowing dust of late January carried with it the risk of valley fever, a disease that has ballooned in recent years but remains challenging to treat and diagnose. What far fewer people know is how and when to protect themselves from these hazards during times when it's unsafe to breathe the air.

On Jan. 20, Martin Luther King Jr. Day, local playgrounds were crammed with kids enjoying unseasonably warm weather on a day off from school. It was also a day when pollution levels spiked to unhealthy levels for everyone; that is, when "everyone may begin to experience health effects." But what exactly does this mean? Is it safe to let kids play outdoors on that kind of a day? And if so, for how long?

Likewise, when the wind whips dust through the air like it did Jan. 25, is it safe to be outside for any amount of time? There's no warning system in place for the threat level of valley fever. How at risk are people who exercise outdoors, run errands, or for kids walking home from bus stops on windy days? Should children cover their mouths with their shirt sleeves? Should we don surgical masks?

The valley's air quality and the skyrocketing rates of valley fever are challenges that won't be solved easily. It's become increasingly difficult and costly to gain further reductions in regional air pollution, and as demonstrated recently, we're often at the mercy of Mother Nature no matter how many changes we make and regulations we enact. And the reality is a vaccine for valley fever remains years away. In the meantime, local residents need better information on how to go about daily life given the risks in the air we breathe.

As the Bakersfield City School District began banning outdoor activity except movement between classrooms on bad air days, absences due to asthma and respiratory illness and ambulance have dropped dramatically. On so-called red-flag days at these schools students can walk the track, but running, playing basketball or jumping rope are off-limits.

The public would benefit from better recommendations on how much outdoor activity is acceptable at varying air quality levels. If that information isn't known, then studies should be done to find out. If researchers can predict the number of deaths and heart attacks caused by air pollution they should be able to draw up more specific guidelines on activity levels and precautions for the general public to take. Regarding valley fever, the Kern County Public Health Services Department could run public service announcements to educate the public about precautions to take, especially when windy days are in the forecast.

Sadly, valley fever and air pollution are facts of life in the Central Valley. The solutions are widely known -- thanks to public education efforts -- yet somehow remain out of reach. It's time for officials and advocacy groups to put more focus on teaching the public how to live with these problems, too.

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