Downtown’s unhealthy air

Posted: August 3rd, 2018 | News, Top Story | No Comments

Jeff Clemetson | Contributing Editor

San Diego Foundation holds forum on local air quality

Despite the region’s clear, sunny skies, San Diego’s air quality isn’t very good — and it’s getting worse. That was the message presented at “Clearing the Air,” a San Diego Foundation Center for Civic Engagement forum held June 22 in the La Mesa Community Center.

“It is easy to not think about what we don’t see,” said Kathlyn Mead, former president and CEO of The San Diego Foundation (SDF).

Participants in the Clearing the Air form take part in the straw breathe challenge to feel what it is like to live with asthma. (Courtesy San Diego Foundation)

“You know the bacteria and viruses in the air actually affect us personally and our families,” she continued. “And when we look around and see blue skies, we don’t see smog like we sometimes see in Los Angeles on a hot day or in movies or programs on television. We look outside and say, ‘Wow, San Diego is actually beautiful.’ But it’s those things in the air we don’t see that make us sick.”

The problem of San Diego’s declining air quality brought out approximately 100 philanthropists, healthcare professionals, environmental advocates, community leaders and residents from across the county and even some groups from across the border to the forum. The forum featured panel consisting of Hanna Grene, director of policy at the Center for Sustainable Energy; Atul Malhortra, MD, chief of Pulmonary, Critical Care and Sleep Medicine at UC San Diego Health; and Nicola Hedge, director of climate and environmental programs at SDF.

San Diego Foundation Director of Climate and Environment Programs Nicola
Hedge (Photo courtesy of San Diego Foundation)

Grene shared data collected on San Diego’s air quality by the Equinox Project, a 2008 initiative of UC San Diego designed to provide data and indicators to understand how the region’s sustainability is performing using environmental and economic indicators.

“Air quality is one of the issues we are tracking and in recent years we have seen a decline in air quality throughout San Diego County,” Grene said, pointing to a 48 percent increase in the county’s number of unhealthy air days from 2016 to 2017.

“The number of unhealthy air days for sensitive groups — that is our community members with lung disease, the elderly and children — increased 16 days in 2017,” she continued. “Overall, unhealthy air days for all of us increased by four days.”

Equinox Project data showed that the region still has zero extreme unhealthy air days, but that some days have approached the threshold. There was some improvement in air quality from 2008 to 2010, but since then there have been significant declines in air quality and an uptick in unhealthy air days. The map of asthma hospitalization rates for children varied throughout the county, with the highest rates found in Downtown San Diego, Barrio Logan, Logan Heights, El Cajon and surrounding areas.

“The American Lung Association’s 2017 State of the Air report gave San Diego County an F for ozone pollution and a D for short-term particle pollution,” Grene said. “San Diego is ranked the seventh dirties city in the country for ozone pollution. We have one of the most beautiful coastlines in the world. We can walk outside and see blue sky and clean air and beautiful palm trees and we don’t always recognize what’s in our air, so that one really stuck with me.”

Grene explained the declining air quality adversely affects the 400,000 San Diegans who have lung diseases like asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

“These residents — our neighbors, our colleagues, our family — are in heightened risk for air pollution,” she continued. “This means we have more people in our hospitals, more people suffering.”

Grene pointed to vehicle emissions and increased heat from climate change as the main causes of the increasingly poor air quality, and noted adopting clean technology like electric cars and a clean energy grid are the best solutions.

As a health professional, Malhotra said he is not qualified to speak on the politics of climate change or environmental policy, so his presentation strictly focused about the health issues related to poor air quality.

Center for Sustainable Energy Director of Policy Hanna Grene (Photo courtesy of San Diego Foundation)

“I talk to a lot of people from different sides of the political spectrum who say that, ‘I’m all for economic growth. We need to build if the economy is to grow.’ And I agree with that. But what I’m going to argue is, I don’t want the economy to grow at the expense of my kids’ lungs or your kids’ lungs, because that is really not the right approach,” he said. “The political debate over global warming has obscured the major cardio-pulmonary toxicity of air pollution.”

Malhotra listed some of the health issues associated with poor air quality. Air pollution affects sleep apnea and is linked to Alzheimer’s disease. Exposure to air pollution as a baby affects the size of lungs as adult and also affects brain function, which Mahotra said was proved through studies carried out in Los Angeles after the air pollution problem there got better from the 1990s through the 2010s and researchers found lung capacity and brain performance in children improved.

Another study in the New England Journal of Medicine looked at 60 million Medicare beneficiaries across country and concluded that air pollution patterns had impact on mortality.

Additionally, a study on men and women from rural Uganda found evidence of air pollution’s global impact — 15 percent of men and 17 percent of the women in that study had evidence of COPD, and 90 percent of the women with COPD had never smoked.

“Air pollution effects 100 percent of us in different ways, either directly or indirectly,” Malhotra said. “Advocacy can be important, writing to your politicians can be important, and raising awareness can be important.”

Advocacy and environmental action were the key points of Hedge’s presentation.

“The really good news is that there is a lot that we can and are doing [about air pollution] by working together and investing today. Through the San Diego Foundation, one of the metrics that we’ve been working on is how many cities are making commitments to reduce climate change, and also to better prepare their communities for the likely impacts of climate change,” she said, adding that when SDF started studying climate change in the region, only two communities in San Diego were working on climate action plans. “Today, all but one of our region’s 19 local governments are working on, or have adopted, a climate action plan.”

The San Diego Foundation began studying climate change and its causes a decade ago, following a brash of wildfires.

“There are important differences between the air pollution from fuels that are burned locally and how that exacerbates global risk from air quality, and also the greenhouse gas emissions that we burn that rise into the atmosphere and affect us globally and over the long term,” Hedge said. “There are a lot of things we can do to address both and I think that’s where the synergy needs to lie. That includes reducing how much we drive by investing in other alternatives.”

Hedge listed increasing public transit, walking, biking, carpools and bike share; improving fuel efficiency of cars; promoting electric and hybrid vehicles; and cleaning up sources of local power as the most effective strategies for combating air pollution.

Following the presentation, the nearly 100 attendees participated in a “straw challenge” where they breathed through a thin straw to better understand the challenges of people suffering from asthma.

The group then workshopped its own ideas, strategies and actions that can be implemented to improve air quality. Mead encouraged the participants to share their ideas on social media using the hashtag #HealthyAirSD.

In addition to continuing the conversation about San Diego’s air quality online, Mead also suggested volunteering for groups like Equinox Project, contributing donations to groups like SDF or other environmental groups, and staying informed on the topic of air pollution as ways of taking action to improve air quality in San Diego.

For more information on The San Diego Foundation Center for Civic Engagement, visit For more information about the Equinox Project, visit

— Reach Jeff Clemetson at

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