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The worst air in the US? It's not in L.A.

Pollution levels and topography have helped make smog 'a way of life' in Bakersfield, Calif.

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But officials now say they need state and federal help to control the heavy-duty trucks that pass through on Interstate 5 and Highway 99, and cut east to west hauling produce from farms to packaging facilities.

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“Unfortunately, all these big trucks fall outside our regulatory authority,” says Seyed Sadredin, the district’s executive director and air pollution control officer.

So far, pollution controls have cost county businesses about $40 billion, he says. Two plans, one to reduce particulate matter by 2015 and another to reduce ozone by 2023, will cost another $20 billion.

“This is all very costly and in the current economic crisis is even more of a challenge,” says Mr. Sadredin.

The cost of noncompliance with pollution standards may be more, he says. Being out of compliance with federal Environment Protection Agency standards costs the county $2 billion in forfeited federal highway funding and puts a dent in its ability to attract more businesses.

Other intangible costs are just as important, notes Bonnie Holmes-Gen, senior policy director for the California chapter of American Lung Association (ALA), pointing to the poor lung capacities of the young people who grow up in such an environment. A California State University, Fullerton study estimated the economic cost of not meeting EPA air standards for the southern California region, which includes the Los Angeles area, at $6 billion per year in health-related costs and premature deaths. (Editor's note: The original version misidentified the university.)

“Sure it costs money to clean up the air, but we are already paying costs with the health of young people, increased medication, and shortened lives,” says Ms. Holmes-Gen. The ALA is working with local governments and promoting partnerships between the county, state, and federal authorities.

“The San Joaquin Air Pollution District has done much to lower the pollution in this area and should be applauded,” says Holmes-Gen. “But there is a lot more they can do. Their hands are not tied.”

This year, 12 more California counties received failing grades than did last year, reflecting in part the tighter national ozone standards adopted in 2008. The ALA’s State of the Air 2009 Report also found that 6 of 10 Americans live in areas where pollution levels endanger lives.

“Despite America’s growing ‘green’ movement,” the report says, “the air in many cities became dirtier since the last report.”