Peak Bay Area ozone concentration levels are well below those first recorded when air quality monitoring began more than 50 years ago. Thanks in part to cleaner cars and trucks than in decades past, ozone concentrations today are at least one-third lower than 1970s levels. These improved conditions have come about despite growth in population, vehicles and miles traveled in the Bay Area. At the same time, however, ozone concentrations ticked upward last year – primarily as a result of unfavorable weather conditions. Based on these recent data, the Bay Area exceeds the new, more stringent standards for ozone.
Ground-level ozone, commonly known as smog, is formed when emissions of ozone precursors from power plants, factories, cars and other sources react with heat and sunlight in the atmosphere. While declining emissions of ozone precursors in recent years have reduced smog in many communities across the country, current ozone concentrations still affect public health, particularly on hot summer days. Reducing smog has been one of the Bay Area’s major public policy priorities for many decades.
Due to prevailing winds, emissions from motor vehicles and industrial sources in the center of our region result in the accumulation of ozone in inland communities. Eastern Contra Costa, eastern Alameda, and southern Santa Clara counties are particularly affected by ozone; conditions continue to be especially bad in Livermore and San Martin. In contrast, the region’s second- and third-largest cities, San Francisco and Oakland, had the lowest concentrations of ozone. Given that the majority of the region’s population lives in the urban core of the region, this means that ozone exposure is well within the standard for most Bay Area residents.
California’s stringent motor vehicle emissions standards have played a key role in reducing ozone levels in our state over the past half-century. Although ozone levels vary annually based on weather conditions, Bay Area ozone levels have generally been lower than most major metro areas in recent years. While emissions standards have greatly improved conditions in the City of Angels as well, Los Angeles still has the highest ozone concentrations of any major American metropolis. This is a result of its mountainous terrain, which trap air pollution in the Los Angeles basin. This topography contributes to the creation of smog, but at levels significantly lower than in decades past.
Bay Area Air Quality Management District: Air Quality Sensor Data (1970-2015)
Environmental Protection Agency: Air Quality System (2013-2015)
Image: Flickr (Creative Commons license), Photographer: Joshua Aaron, https://www.flickr.com/photos/38324365@N00/314894944
Data is collected at specific sensor sites operated by the Air District that capture the concentration of ozone in the air; sensor locations may change over the years and thus only minor relocations are shown as the same station in this analysis (e.g., sensor moved across the street from its prior location). Data are used to calculate the eight-hour peak concentration for ozone. The fourth-highest day of the year is identified and then reported as a three-year rolling average to minimize the impact of short-term variations in weather conditions in any given year. These averaged are compared to the national air quality standard to determine compliance. The site with the highest ozone level may shift from year to year depending on which sensor location had the highest levels of ozone over that particular time period. For current air quality data, refer to the Bay Area Air Quality Management District’s website: http://www.baaqmd.gov/about-air-quality/current-air-quality