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California’s polluted past and…promising present?

It’s been said that in California, it will be the crowds, the traffic, the cold or the pollution that kills you. Well, in regard to my own personal and eventual death, none of these means appeal to me in particular. Not the smothering by strangely dressed tourists, the collision of a several-ton vehicle impacting my tiny frame of a body, or the slow takeover of freezing cold temperatures gripping me so tightly as to extinguish all the life remaining inside me. But pollution? I don’t think I could imagine the possibility of some thick, smoggy, chemical substance finding its way into my body and then taking over some invaluable major organ, forcing me to battle it out in an end-all, beat-all fight to which I inevitably lose.

With this in mind, I don’t know if California is a place I want to visit, let alone call home, any time soon…or is it?

I once saw a sign that jokingly displayed the border between California and Arizona with a sign that read, “Now entering the great Golden State, California,” and it depicted two people, a man and a woman, wearing buttoned-down, flower printed t-shirts, baseball caps stuck to their sweaty heads and on their faces were giant green gas masks.

Although this instance was derived in jest, for the residents of many cities and towns in California, industrial air processes have a great and negative effect on overall life. In fact, 90 percent of Californians breathe unhealthy levels of one or more air pollutants during some part of the year.

Many cities in California are also known for high levels of fine particulate matter (solid particles and droplets of liquid found in the air, some of which include aerosols, smoke, fumes, dust, ash and pollen), which contribute to widespread and major health risks. A study conducted in Fresno, Los Angeles, Orange County, Sacramento, San Diego and Santa Clara demonstrated increased risk of cardiovascular disease, respiratory disease, ischemic heart disease and diabetes and as a direct result of exposure to these particles.

By itself, ozone is deadly and poisonous to humans. Californians are exposed to this gas every day at one point or another, and at some of the highest levels recorded in the U.S. Exposure to ozone contributes to an annual 637 cases of premature mortality, 4,200 respiratory hospital admissions, 660 pediatric emergency room visits for asthma, 4.7 million days of school loss and 3.1 million minor restricted activity days, according to HHS.gov. Ozone has become such a problem for California that the state has adopted a law that requires a lowered ozone standard of 0.070ppm.

Menacing in just the length of its name is the term methylterbutylether, commonly abbreviated as MTBE. This barely pronounceable term is actually a harsh chemical compound sometimes found in drinking water and is extremely harmful if consumed in high enough amounts. When tested over a six-year period, MTBE was found in 1.3 percent of all drinking water samples, 2.5 percent of all drinking water sources and 3.7 percent of all drinking water systems in California.

MTBE has been associated with petroleum and is now banned in California and U.S. fuels.

So yes, California might live up to some of the pollution-related stereotypes clouding its name, but the Golden State isn’t just sitting back about it.

We’re all familiar with global warming. It’s been in and out of the news non-stop in recent years. It’s true that in California between the years 1960 and 2001, global warming pollution bounced up 85 percent due to a greater combustion of oil and natural gas, with heating and electrical supply needs responsible for 61 and 38 percent of that increase. Many California businesses, however, such as Adobe Systems Inc. in San Jose, are helping the cause by making a serious effort to cut their global warming pollution.

In 1990, California passed a pioneering mandate on zero emissions vehicles (ZEV). The order was “designed to improve the air quality whereby the state can be in compliance with federal air quality standards by 2007 and to protect the public health from the adverse effects of air pollutants from automobiles.”

I actually just recently visited California and found it quite interesting that residents there must have their vehicles checked every year to make sure they still pass emissions standards set by the state. Signs are posted on just about every auto and mechanic shop front, “Have you had your emissions checked lately?”

So this all might make you feel better about California, but also consider this: alone, California’s emissions from fossil fuel combustion are greater than all other U.S. states with the exception of Texas. And in the transportation sector, California has only a slightly lower fuel use for cars and trucks than the entire nation.

With the environment on just about everyone’s mind these days, it’s good to know that California is standing up against pollution to promote the idea of a brighter, greener and overall better tomorrow, but is what it’s doing really enough?