FRESNO - Decreasing air pollution in Southern California and the San Joaquin Valley would save more lives annually than ending all motor vehicle fatalities in the two regions, according to a study released Wednesday.
The study, which examined the costs of air pollution in two areas with the worst levels in the country, also said meeting federal ozone and fine particulate standards could save $28 billion annually in health care costs, school absences, missed work and lost income potential from premature deaths.
The price tag amounts to $1,600 annually per person in the San Joaquin Valley and $1,250 in the South Coast Air Basin.
Researchers at California State University, Fullerton, sought to assess the potential economic benefits that could be achieved by reducing air pollution to levels within federal standards.
"For decades there has been a tug of war over what to do about air pollution," said Jane Hall, lead author of the study and an internationally recognized expert in the economics of regulation and the environment at Cal State Fullerton. "We are paying now for not having done enough."
To illustrate its point, the study noted that the California Highway Patrol recorded 2,521 vehicular deaths in the San Joaquin Valley and South Coast Air Basin in 2006, compared to 3,812 deaths attributed to respiratory illness caused by particulate pollution.
Studies have indicated a relationship between ozone and particulate pollution and asthma and other respiratory problems, including chronic bronchitis. They also have connected particulate pollution with an increase in cardiovascular problems.
Hall and colleague Victor Brajer analyzed ozone and fine particulate concentrations across the two basins in five-by-five kilometer grids from 2005 through 2007. The researchers applied those numbers to the health affects they are known to cause, then assigned peer-reviewed economic values to each illness or death that could result.
The findings were released as the California Air Resources Board considers controversial new regulations to reduce diesel truck emissions, a move that could cost 170,000 business owners $5.5 billion. According to a board staff report, the savings in health care costs would be $68 billion by 2020 if the regulations were adopted next month.
"It may be tempting to think California can't afford to clean up, but in fact dirty air is like a $28 billion lead balloon on our economy," Hall said.
Only Houston approaches the same levels of air pollution as in the inland valleys of California.
In the San Joaquin Valley - made up of Kern, Tulare, Kings, Fresno, Madera, Merced, Stanislaus and San Joaquin counties - all residents breath unhealthy air between 112 and 139 days a year - or just about every day of summer.
It's slightly better in the South Coast Air Basin, which includes Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino counties. There, federal ozone standards are exceeded between 115 and 120 days a year, mostly in San Bernardino and Riverside.
Both air basins are classified as "extreme nonattainment" areas for ozone pollution created from emissions from gas combustion engines, and "severe" for fine particulate, such as soot from fireplaces, dust from farming and exhaust from diesel engines.
"Some people can pack their families off to Oregon," Hall said. "Others can't really choose to breath clean air. We all do it or we all don't."
Given the level of particulate pollution, the study says that levels must fall by 50 percent in both regions for health and economic benefits to occur, something they acknowledged would be "very difficult to achieve."
If pollution levels were to improve to federal standards, the study says residents of the two air basins would suffer 3,860 fewer premature deaths, 3,780 fewer nonfatal heart attacks and would miss 470,000 fewer days of work annually. School children would miss more than 1.2 million fewer days of school, a savings of $112 million in caregiver costs. There also would be more than 2 million fewer cases of upper respiratory problems.
"As a society we make decisions to spend money on things such as railroad crossings or air traffic control - things that improve safety," Brajer said. "There are a lot of ways society spends money to make things safer, and that's what we're trying to get at."
The $90,000 study was funded by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.