Total Drek

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Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Breathing sociology

This AP news article in Yahoo! News caught my eye - the nation's most polluted place is not Los Angeles, New York, Denver, or any other city you might expect.

Instead, it is the small farming community of Arvin, California. The AP article is frustratingly short on detail; it's more useful and much more interesting to look at the local coverage, from KERO, the local ABC affiliate in the nearby city of Bakersfield. There is also an extensive Wikipedia article about Arvin.

The EPA reported that Arvin's level of ground-level ozone* (a key component of smog) is higher than the acceptable amount 73 days per year between 2004 and 2006. Consequently, respiratory diseases occur at a much higher rate in Arvin than in the rest of the country. 17.5% of Arvin's children have asthma, compared to the 12.2% national average.

Why is the air in this small farming town so polluted? The town lies the far southern end of California's immense and agriculturally productive Central Valley, hemmed in by mountains to the south and west. Pollution from the San Francisco bay area blows south and west, flows along the ground, and eventually ends up stuck on the valley floor in Arvin until it dissipates.

So, to oversimplify slightly while still leaving the essence of the problem, cars and factories in the San Francisco area create pollution that blows to the southwest, flows along the ground in the Central Valley, and collects in Arvin.

What is the 2000 census demographics of each area?**

San Francisco County
2006 Estimated Population: 744,041
2005 Racial distribution:
White non-hispanic 44.1%
Black 7.3%
Asian 32.9%
Hispanic/Latino 13.7%
2004 Median household income: $51,815
2000 High school graduates: 81.2%

Kern County (includes Arvin and Bakersfield)***
2006 Estimated Population: 780,117
2005 Racial distribution:
White non-hispanic 44.3%
Black 6.2%
Asian 3.9%
Hispanic/Latino 44.1%
2004 Median household income: $38,689
2000 High school graduates: 68.5%

It's a proverbial Tale of Two Cities, and to quote the book in this new context:

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,
it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness,
it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity,
it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness,
it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair,
we had everything before us, we had nothing before us,
we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct

the other way.
I'm sure you can guess which city is which.

Why do I bring this up today? Yesterday, I spoke about public sociology, and speculated on whether and how sociologists can better communicate their results to an interested member of the public - and whether and how this is related to the public sociology movement that Drek has eloquently posted about in the past.

Sociologists can and should guard against overt politicization of their discipline, and can and should maintain scientific rigor. But they also should not pretend that sociology is a field of pure research, with no use for applications to everyday life. After all, a research topic like inequality is not a question to be put in a lab and studied.

It's in the air that we breathe.

*Don't confuse ground-level ozone with the upper-atmosphere ozone layer, which is necessary to sustain life on Earth. We want ozone in the upper atmosphere, where it absorbs harmful rays from the Sun; we don't want it near the ground, where it makes it hard for us to breathe.

**I'm using counties instead of cities because the census bureau web site does not list data for Arvin, so I am using data for Kern County, which includes both Arvin and Bakersfield.

***Kern County isn't a true representation of Arvin, because it includes the much larger city of Bakersfield (320,000 people for Bakersfield vs. 12,000 for Arvin). But because Arvin is a farming community with a large Mexican-American population, I suspect that the income and education level for Arvin is even lower than for Kern County overall. Can someone who knows where to find city statistics look this up?

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