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How Bad Is The Air Quality In The Bay Area?

Hey Area is where we find answers to questions you ask. One listener wanted to know how bad the air quality is in the Bay Area. 

It’s a hot, beautiful day by the Bay. Locals are out jogging, tourists are taking photos. From here, I can see the Bay Bridge, Oakland’s Port, and Marin. The air quality seems great to me, but what do people walking around from the community think.
“I’d say generally good with the exceptions of fires - it gets pretty bad.”

“It’s better than Sacramento… haha!”

“Well, it could be better, but I've seen it worse in other places, but I was born here and it was nicer 50 year ago.”

I meet with Simrun Dhoot from the Bay Area Air Quality Management District (BAAQMD) to chat about it. She notes that even on this nice day, “Today’s actually a spare the air day. We issued a spare the air day this morning after looking at our data from air quality monitors.”

Those monitors measure “particulate matter” and “ozone,” which come from things like wood fires and cars, respectively. When those levels are predicted to be high, we get a “Spare the Air” news alert on our TVs and radios.

It turns out the state of our air quality is quite hazy. It depends on the day, where you are, and who you ask. The American Lung Association gave Marin County an A for its Ozone levels, but Alameda got an F. Dhoot points out, “Marin doesn't have many industrial sources, and Alameda County does. Alameda county also has more freeways, more roadways, and those can all lead to poorer air quality.

Still, over the last few decades the Bay Area has significantly reduced its air pollution. According to BAAQMD, based on current standards, during the year 2000 we had 25 days with particulate matter at unsafe levels; by 2016, we were down to 0 days a year.

Then, during the big fires last year, Simrun reminds me, “We had 14 straight spare the air days due specifically to that event.” At that time, the Bay Area had some of the worst air quality in the world.

Our air quality’s getting better, but the fires are complicating it. We’ll see what this year’s fire season means for the air we breathe.

Jonathan A. Davis is an award-winning journalist, radio storyteller, and podcast producer. Prior to his work as a freelance reporter and producer, he was an associate producer on KALW’s feature podcast “The Intersection.” Jonathan worked in management consulting and with several non-profits before coming through the radio ranks with KPFA and KALW. Telling the world’s stories through the magical medium of audio and the oral tradition is an honor for Jonathan. You can find out more about him and his work at radio.jdavis.online