Air Pollution in the San Joaquin Valley: Causes, Consequences, and Solutions

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Air pollution is one of the San Joaquin Valley’s (SJV) most well-known environmental issues. Being an agricultural hub trapped in between multiple mountain ranges, the San Joaquin Valley makes the perfect breeding ground for increased air pollution. Two of the most prominent pollutants in the San Joaquin Valley include particulate matter and ozone. Particulate matter is a mixture of solid particles and liquid droplets that are found in the air, while ozone (or tropospheric ozone) is the result of internal combustion engines and power plants (PM Basics, 2018).

Due to the severe health and environmental effects of pollution, various laws have been implemented in an attempt to control the amount of pollution and prevent further damage to citizens and the environment as a whole. Nevertheless, people continue to experience the economic, social, and health-related repercussions of pollution, including long-term health issues such as asthma and other lung diseases, accumulated healthcare costs related to the effects of pollution on one’s health, and public safety.

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Sources and Variations of Pollution

The most prevalent pollutants in the San Joaquin Valley are particulate matter and ozone. As noted above, particulate matter is formed from solid and liquid particles. This can include dirt, dust, soot, or smoke (PM Basics, 2018). In severe cases, these particles can be seen with the naked eye. Particulate matters are broken down into two subcategories: PM10 and PM2.5. The former is inhalable particles that have diameters of 10 micrometers or less. The latter consists of fine, inhalable particles whose diameters are 2.5 micrometers or less (PM Basics, 2018).

A journal article entitled Source apportionment of PM2.5 organic carbon in the San Joaquin Valley using monthly and daily observations and meteorological clustering discussed a study where over two hundred samples of particulate matters were collected throughout three-day intervals over a 14-month period from the San Joaquin Valley. The samples were analyzed for organic carbon, elemental carbon, water-soluble organic carbon, and organic molecular markers (Skiles, 2018).

The five sources identified included mobile sources, biomass burning, meat smoke, vegetative detritus, and secondary organic carbon. Interestingly enough, biomass burning and meat smoke were noted to have peaked during the winter months, while secondary organic carbon peaked during the summer (Skiles, 2018). Essentially, the sources of particulate matter in the San Joaquin Valley are automobiles, the burning of crops or other vegetation, meat smoke, vegetative garbage, and secondary organic carbon.

The second most common pollutant in the San Joaquin Valley is the tropospheric ozone. It varies from particulate matter in that it is not emitted directly into the air (Basic Information about Ozone, 2018). Instead, it is created by chemical reactions between oxides of nitrogen (NOx) and volatile organic compounds. These pollutants that make up the tropospheric ozone come from cars, power plants, industrial boilers, refineries, and chemical plants. These are exacerbated by sunlight, meaning they react with oxides of nitrogen and volatile organic compounds best when in the sun. When this ozone is at ground level, it becomes a harmful air pollutant known as smog (Basic Information about Ozone, 2018).

Variations in ozone pollution are heavily influenced by meteorological processes (Jin, 2011). Wind circulation, solar radiation, and temperature can all alter chemical reaction rates, biogenic emissions, and pollutant transport and buildup (Jin, 2011). The San Joaquin Valley can attribute its ozone air pollution mostly to its geographical location as well as various emission sources from local and upwind areas such as the San Francisco Bay area and the Sacramento Valley area.

Reasons for Poor Air Quality

The San Joaquin Valley is the perfect host for pollutants due to its geographic location. According to, our Valley is about 250 miles long and is shaped like a narrow bowl bordered by mountains. Valley weather varies with frequent temperature inversions, hot summers, and sluggish, foggy winters. This allows for the formation and retention of air pollutants. In short, the San Joaquin Valley has poor air quality because it can produce and preserve pollution. Furthermore, the Valley is widely known for its agriculture. It is considered the most productive agricultural region in the world (San et al., 2018). Because of this, and because of the modern-day products used in agriculture, our region is affected by agricultural-related pollution.

Tractors and irrigation pumps are some of those contributors. On top of the fact that the Central Valley is booming with agriculture and is geographically equipped to hold pollutants, we have about 6.5 million people living in our region. With more people comes more vehicles creating more smog, more kitchen stoves being used, more packaged spray products, more household appliances such as air conditioners and refrigerators in use, and more daily litter, which generates methane into the air (Baig, 2017). The increased amount of people leading to an increased emission of air-polluting substances is naturally going to deplete our air quality.

Impacts of climate change on the pollution level

Climate change is defined as a change in global or regional climate patterns; that is, the earth is warming at alarming rates. This affects pollution levels. Higher temperatures are known to increase smog pollution because smog contains ozone particles (Miller, 2017). As discussed earlier, ozone particles are exacerbated at higher temperatures. Additionally, higher temperatures, such as those caused by climate change, draw moisture out of the soil and into the air. This then causes the vegetation to dry out and become more vulnerable to wildfires, which can then contribute to air pollution (Miller, 2017). The smoke from the wildfires stays in the air for a significant amount of time and is capable of traveling long distances, leading to more premature deaths.

Smog and vegetative pollutants aren’t the only particles that are affected by climate change. Pollen is considered a pollutant as well, and it is very sensitive to climate. In warmer climates, the pollen season lasts longer. Moreover, increased carbon dioxide in the air causes plants to yield more pollen.

Economic, Social, and Health Impacts

Air pollution affects the economic status of our region in that it forces us to spend money on resources that may reduce pollution and improve air quality (EPA Activities for Cleaner Air, 2018). The region has funded a cleaner locomotive throughout the Valley with the intention of reducing the public health impact of diesel emissions from trains moving goods through the Valley. The San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District has also paid $750,000 to install and operate a thermal oxidizer that reduces volatile organic compound emissions by 95% (EPA Activities for Cleaner Air, 2018). Manteca, in particular, was also required by a Clean Air Act Settlement to spend just under $4 million in an effort to improve its landfill’s gas collection and control system as well as replace trucks in the landfill’s fleet with vehicles that will produce less emission.

One of the most obvious impacts of air pollution is on our society’s health as a whole. The San Joaquin Valley has a high rate of asthma and various other lung diseases that are directly related to or exacerbated by poor air quality. Air pollution is a global health threat and causes millions of deaths every year (Jang, 2018). Pollutants are able to pass through the protective barriers in our bronchopulmonary tract (i.e., the mucosal cilia and air-blood barrier). Thus, the vapor of these pollutants is prone to be absorbed by our tissue or even dissolved in our bodily fluids. PM10 particles are typically able to be eliminated by mucociliary clearance, but PM2.5 particles can easily invade deeper into our lungs, leading to respiratory infections (Jang, 2018).

Children are especially at risk. In fact, a third of all deaths in children are related to various acute respiratory infections (Jang, 2018). Emergency room visits for asthma are mostly related to the aggravating effects of environmental exposure. Long-term exposure to these pollutants can lead to Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) (Jang, 2018). Frighteningly enough, lung cancer has been linked to air pollution exposure, as this exposure causes DNA injury. Being a smoker and living in the San Joaquin Valley have virtually the same effects on one’s lungs.

Unfortunately, air pollution does not just affect the health of those of us actually inhaling it. It also affects the lives and lungs of the not-yet-born. Exposure to air pollution during pregnancy is now considered to have long-term impacts on fetal human health. The prenatal period, specifically when the lungs of the fetus are being developed, is highly susceptible. Anything that an expecting mother consumes, including polluted air, can pass directly through the amniotic fluid and placenta and transfer over to the fetus, creating permanent damage before he or she takes his or her first breath (Jang, 2018).

In addition to pulmonary-related health concerns, air pollution can trigger certain inflammatory mechanisms in the body. Systemic inflammation has a critical role in the cause of diabetes, and scientists have found that long-term pollutant exposure, specifically to fine particulate matter (that is, PM2.5), increases blood glucose and encourages adipose tissue inflammation as well as insulin resistance. (Kan, 2011). Scientists have also monitored these occurrences in various groups, comparing long-term air pollution exposure and diabetes occurrence, incidence, and death, and found a positive relationship, meaning entire societies are at risk of developing diabetes and even expiring from it, in relation to exposure to poor air quality (Kan, 2011).

Existing Policies

In 1970, the United States passed the Clean Air Act (CAA), which is a comprehensive federal law that regulates air emissions from both stationary and mobile sources (EPA, 2017). The law allows the EPA to establish National Ambient Air Quality Standards that protect public health and public welfare. They also regulate emissions from hazardous air pollutants. The Act has since been amended in 1977 and 1990 in order to set new goals since many areas in the country failed to meet deadlines (EPA, 2017).

They have also implemented a national pollution prevention policy. This includes specific plans of action such as preventing pollution/reducing the source whenever feasible, recycling the pollutants in an environmentally safe manner, treating the pollutants in an environmentally safe manner that cannot be prevented or recycled, and only disposing/releasing pollutants into the environment as an absolute last resort.

The San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District lists regulatory measures to control air pollution for 2018. One includes the use of ultra-low NOx flare emissions limitations for existing and new flaring activities, as well as the inclusion of additional flare minimization requirements.

Of course, there are always steps we can take at home to reduce/prevent pollution. The EPA suggests that we turn down the thermostat, keeping our homes heated to 68F during the day and 60F at night. They also suggest we lower our water heater down to 120F. Energy-efficient products and equipment can be purchased, and you can also insulate your house. Lastly, they also recommend cleaning or replacing filters regularly (EPA, 2017).


Air pollution in the Central Valley is clearly problematic. Our everyday use of vehicles, vegetative waste, agriculture, and even just the dust in the air have caused permanent effects on our environment and our health as a society. Due to the Valley’s dome-like shape enclosed by mountain ranges, we are able to trap pollutants, which only enhances our already substantial problem. The health of our citizens, born and not yet born, is being affected by lung diseases such as asthma, COPD, and lung cancer. Individuals are now at even higher risk for diabetes in relation to poor air quality exposure.

In order to reclaim our environment and our health status, we as a society must implement the policies laid out before us by the government. It is vital that we do our part to reduce pollution, whether that be turning our heater/air conditioning down, changing out light bulbs, or carpooling to work and school. In addition, efforts to reduce climate change should be implemented so as not to exacerbate pollution particles. Any and all efforts to prevent pollution and improve the health and safety of our society are well worth the cost of the convenience of running the air conditioner or driving yourself to work.


  1. “The Silent Epidemic: Coal and the Hidden Threat to Health” by Alan H. Lockwood
  2. “Air Pollution: Health and Environmental Impacts” by Bhola R. Gurjar, Luisa T. Molina
  3. “Air Quality in America: A Dose of Reality on Air Pollution Levels, Trends, and Health Risks” by Joel M. Schwartz

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Air Pollution in the San Joaquin Valley: Causes, Consequences, and Solutions. (2023, Aug 29). Retrieved from

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