Young lungs breathing pristine Humboldt County air. | Photo: Stephanie McGeary.


Rejoice, Humboldt. Step outside, breathe deep and shout “Hooray!” When you’re done, go ahead and take a few more deep inhales, because unless you’re standing near a vehicle tailpipe, a 4/20 party or the business end of a local farm animal, the air you’re breathing might just be the cleanest in the entire state.

That’s according to the American Lung Association’s 2023 State of the Air report, which issues letter grades to counties across the country based on two air quality measurements: ozone and particle pollution. 

Ozone pollution, the main ingredient in smog, can trigger a variety of health problems, leading to coughing, difficulty breathing, inflamed airways and increased frequency of asthma attacks.

Humboldt County is virtually smog-free.

With 49 out of California’s 58 counties providing data analyzed in the report, Humboldt is one of just nine counties to receive an “A” grade, with 0.0 high ozone days tallied over the time period covered. (The data from the report, collected in 2019, 2020 and 2021, was taken from the 10,000-plus air quality monitors in the EPA’s Air Quality System. Not all counties have monitors for either ozone or particle pollution.)

As for particle pollution, Humboldt County received a B grade, which may sound sorta “meh” until you learn that it was the highest grade in class. Yolo County got a C; Imperial, Lake and Ventura counties all got Ds; every other county on the report received a failing grade.

While Humboldt County experienced a bit of air pollution in recent years as smoke from inland wildfires drifted our way, most days here are pristine. In contrast, the vast majority of Californians live in communities with unhealthy levels of smog or fine particles. 

That may surprise you, but the truth is that much of California’s air is very, very bad. As CNN notes, the Golden State accounts for six of the 10 worst cities in the country in terms of annual particle pollution. California also has four of the five worst cities for ozone pollution: Los Angeles-Long Beach, Visalia, Bakersfield and Fresno-Madera-Hanford.

Nationwide, nearly 36 percent of Americans — 119.6 million people — live in communities with failing grades for unhealthy levels of ozone or particle pollution, according to the American Lung Association. That’s actually 17.6 million fewer people breathing unhealthy air than in last year’s report.

The authors attribute the country’s falling levels of ozone pollution to the success of the Clean Air Act. Since President Richard Nixon signed that act into law in 1970, emissions of outdoor air pollutants have fallen 78 percent, according to the EPA

“However,” the State of the Air report says, “the number of people living in counties with failing grades for daily spikes in deadly particle pollution was 63.7 million, the most ever reported under the current national standard.”

People of color and those in western states are disproportionately affected, the report found. Of the nearly 120 million people living in areas with unhealthy air quality, more than 64 million (54 percent) are people of color. 

What’s causing all this pollution? Driving is the big one. Transportation, including fuel production and the engined of our gas-powered vehicles, is responsible for roughly half of greenhouse gas emissions and 80 percent of air pollutants in California, according to the California Air Resources Board.

Another factor? Wildfires, which lead to more ozone and particle pollution. Nationwide there were 14,407 fires in 2021 alone, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. “Those fires are why the regions with the highest concentrations of air pollution are largely in the West,” CNN says.

As noted by the Los Angeles Times, California is taking action. “Following a 2020 order from Gov. Gavin Newsom, the California Air Resources Board developed a plan to ban sales of new gas-powered vehicles by 2035,” the paper says in a story published earlier today. “Similar state restrictions on diesel-burning big rigs were also recently given the green light by federal regulators.”

How do we improve matters further? The report includes a list of suggestions for both individuals and governments. For people they recommend that you prioritize walking, biking and public transit for your transportation. Also, conserve electricity, purchase your power from clean sources and refrain from burning leaves, trash and wood whenever possible.  

For local governments, the researchers recommend that jurisdictions adopt a climate action plan. (Humboldt County supervisors are working to adopt one.) They also suggest buying zero-emission fleet vehicles and set purchasing goals for renewable, non-combustion energy.

Of course, most residential customers in the county already get their electricity through Redwood Coast Energy Authority, which has a goal of purchasing 100 percent renewable power by 2030. And before long we could have massive floating wind turbines generating power off our coast.

Click the following links if you’d like to read the full 2023 State of the Air report or peruse California’s report card.