Drought impacts public health

Earlier this week, I participated in a workshop on “The Impacts of California’s Drought on Local Air Quality and Public Health.” It made for some sobering listening.  One by one,  speakers from the South Coast Air Quality Management District, California Department of Water Resources, and Los Angeles Department of Water and Power built a case about how drought directly affects our health — and even the health of an unborn child.

Put simply,  when drought strikes we get a three-fold punch.  First, we lose the natural cleansing that rain provides for the atmosphere as it mixes things up and the fine particles literally get rained out. Second,  as the drought bites we being to switch from hydroelectric power to dirty coal and gas power plants. Third, the dry earth is literally whipped up into the sky where those fine particles linger for us to breathe. And that’s all before you throw in wild-fire.

The fine particles are insidious. In the lingo, PM2.5 particles with a diameter of 2.5 micrometers or less are the ones that get us. Breathed deep into our body, they reduce our lung capacity. They have even been shown to reduce the lung capacity of an as-yet unborn infant. And the tiniest of particles penetrate further, elevating the risk of cancer and causing other diseases.

Huge progress has been made over the past decades to clean-up our air here in Los Angeles. This progress is now threatened by the ongoing persistence of drought.

There’s no simple answer to this pressing public health issue.  Part of it has to be to invest in local water supplies – such as cleaning up our groundwater.  When we use local water, we don’t incur the heavy energy cost of importing the water — a cost born in additional air pollution. We can also use water to keep dust down.

But we also need to invest in alternative clean energy sources so a shift from hydro power means a move to solar or wind, and not coal or gas. And those spare-the-air days where we are meant to leave the car at home? They really matter too.

I can’t say I left the meeting energized. But I did leave informed with a new-found urgency that investing in clean local water is also an investment in clean air.

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