Researchers say Orange County’s poor and ethnically diverse residents are at greater risk of air pollution and its resulting in health effects more than predominantly white communities.

Editor’s Note: This story series was produced by Chapman University journalism students working with the VOC Collegiate News Service.

The idea for the series was sparked by the fall oil spill off Orange County’s coast. But it also goes further — examining the seen and unseen pollution across the local environment — in drinking water sources, ocean waters, on land and in the air. We hope with this series to give residents balanced and informative stories that people can use to be empowered in the community. If you have questions, comments and story ideas please contact Sonya Quick, digital editor at Voice of OC and Chapman adjunct professor.

Urban areas in Orange County are overwhelmed with traffic and are susceptible to emissions from fossil-fueled vehicles. Green spaces with plants and trees can lower the number of pollutants in the atmosphere, yet many cities lack the resources or space for such areas.

Meanwhile, environmental experts urge residents and government officials to take action by switching to non-emission vehicles before air pollution worsens.

Air Quality Comparisons

Some Orange County cities are disproportionately affected by air pollution.

Santa Ana, for instance, contains a network of heavily trafficked roads and freeways, along with warehousing and industries, that generate pollutants into the community, according to Michael Kleinman, professor of environmental toxicology at UC Irvine.

“It’s a community in which you have a lot of people of color; the income level in that community is on the average lower than some of the surrounding communities,” said Kleinman. 

Santa Ana residents in neighborhoods of color have access to 73% less park space per person than Santa Ana residents in white neighborhoods, according to the Trust For Public Land. The Trust For Public Land also reports that only 4% of land in Santa Ana is dedicated to parks and recreation.

Air Quality Map 

In comparison, Kleinman says Irvine has better air quality due to offshore winds, less traffic, and more green spaces than other cities.

Irvine uses 26% of its land for parks and recreation according to the Trust For Public Land. Still, Irvine residents in neighborhoods of color have access to 69% less park space per person than Irvine residents in white neighborhoods, according to the Trust For Public Land.

Orange County’s air quality is still better than most areas in Southern California, according to Marc Carreras Sospedra, air quality specialist at South Coast Air Quality Management District. 

“Typically, the worst air quality happens in the Riverside and San Bernardino counties, where the pollution from upwind sources in LA [Los Angeles] and OC [Orange County] is transported and accumulated due to the presence of mountain ranges,” said Sospedra.

He explained that a sea breeze blows air pollution from the coast to counties further inland.

Air Pollution Causes

Historically, air pollution in Orange County derives from the exhausts of motor vehicles, particularly diesel trucks, according to Kleinman. However, as cars have relied on cleaner fuels in recent years, consumer products such as soaps and nail polish can generate more volatile materials, Kleinman said.

“As we’ve gotten better and better at regulating industrial sources and reducing emissions from cars and trucks, these things become proportionally more important going forward.”

Michael Kleinman, professor of environmental toxicology at UC Irvine

In 2021, consumer products emitted 20.782 tons of organic gases per day in Orange County, according to the California Air Resources Board. In comparison, on-road motor vehicles emitted 15.169 organic gasses per day, according to the California Air Resources Board.

However, environmental experts are not dismissing the severity of motor vehicles. Transportation and wildfires are two of the main contributing factors of air pollution in Southern California, according to Ben Grundy, global warming solutions associate with Environment California. 

“Wildfires are a little bit harder to control, but transportation is definitely something that’s within our control,” Grundy said.

Why It Matters

Exposure to air pollution can cause various health defects, including an increased risk of infectious diseases and premature death.

An Environment California study lists air pollution health risks:

  • Premature death
  • Damage to respiratory and cardiovascular systems
  • Worsened mental health and neural functioning
  • Decreased fertility and harm to pregnancies
  • Increased cancer risk
  • Increase risk of infectious diseases

“Air pollution suppresses one of the first responders in your body, the innate immune system,” Kleinman said. He says that without a strong immune system, people are more susceptible to viral infections.

These effects of air pollution are not equally distributed. Those who live in poverty or in predominantly black communities often face higher exposure to pollutants than predominantly white communities, according to an article by the American Lung Association.

“If you are living in a disadvantaged community, there’s often less funding and less ability to fight the introduction of these polluting sources,” Grundy said.

Many low-income communities lack access to quality food or hospitals to treat the effects of pollution, according to Grundy.

Pollution Solutions

Experts advise Orange County residents to contribute to cleaner air quality.

Sospedra recommends people reduce their use of consumer products that emit gas and switch to zero-emissions vehicles such as electric cars.

Grundy also says that Orange County residents and transportation agencies should move towards cleaner forms of transit that produce less emissions. He believes cities could quicken this transition by creating electric vehicle incentives or adopting a resolution to electrify public transportation. 

“We understand that purchasing an electric vehicle itself can be a huge financial burden. Which is why general investments in clean buses and clean transportation systems will benefit those who can’t afford to immediately purchase an electric vehicle.”

Ben Grundy, global warming solutions associate at Environment California

Aside from transportation, maintaining green spaces and limiting the amount of industry can benefit the environment, overall.

“Having trees and greenery, that does recycle a lot of the pollutants and help improve the local air quality,” Kleinman said.

Story written by Nolan Thompson. Story edited by Savannah Sauer.

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