On “Spare the Air” days in San Francisco, it’s illegal to burn wood or any other solid fuels in fireplaces, woodstoves, or outdoor fire pits. Since November, a record 30 Spare the Air alerts have been issued in the Bay Area, as day after day of poor air quality obscure views of the Golden Gate Bridge. Last winter, there were only 10.
San Francisco is just one of many cities across the West and Southwest that are enduring dangerous air pollution thanks to stubbornly dry conditions. 2013 was California’s driest year on record, and January will likely go down as the driest month ever.
“The West Coast has been dominated by a persistent weather pattern since last year with the jet stream staying far to the north, preventing moisture-laden Pacific storms from affecting California,” meteorologist Chris Dolce told The Weather Channel. “Unfortunately, it appears this pattern will persist through the end of January with no significant precipitation in the forecast.”
Drought affects air quality in many ways: there’s more dust, a greater chance of smoke-belching wildfires, and no rain to wash pollutants out of the air. The current ridge of high pressure parked over the West Coast is diverting the storms from the Pacific Ocean which normally make the winter months the best season in terms of air quality. Storms not only wash the air, they also bring in fresh air from the ocean, diluting the smog.
By far the worst-hit area is the Central Valley where even healthy people are being told to avoid going outside. This winter is the most polluted on record for the area, which is no stranger to bad air days. The San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District board told the AP that the region would have clean winter air if it weren’t for the drought. The concentration of fine particulate matter in the air has been nearly three times the federal standard.
In northern Utah, the situation isn’t much better. There have already been dozens of burn bans in Salt Lake County and the region has endured over two weeks of health alerts triggered by the concentration of soot in the air. People are also being urged to drive less in an attempt to keep the air cleaner.
The most dangerous component in air pollution are the very fine particles that can become lodged deep in people’s lungs. These particles are known as PM2.5. According to the World Health Organization, chronic exposure to tiny particulate matter contributes to the risk of developing cardiovascular and respiratory diseases. PM2.5 was also officially designated as a carcinogen in October.