13th Street in Oakland is dangerous

Oakland Air Quality

How bad is the air quality in Oakland?

Oakland air quality is consistently among the worst in the United States. In 2019, the city faced the challenge of meeting the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's limits for both PM2.5 and ozone pollution, the nation's most widespread air pollutants with dangerous levels.

The American Lung Association's (ALA) annual State of the Air report ranks and compares cities based on their ability to meet federal air pollution targets. For measurements of unhealthy days with high ozone pollution and 24-hour PM2.5 pollution, the Oakland certificate received a negative rating.1

Ozone is a key component of smog, which occurs when precursor pollutants such as nitrogen oxides (NOx) and organic substances, including volatile organic compounds (VOCs), react with one another in sunlight. Because temperatures typically in excess of 80 ° F (26.67 ° C) are required for its formation, Oakland's ozone season typically runs from April through October. During these months there are approximately 94 days with temperatures above 80 ° F, which increases the threat of ozone formation.2

In the 2016-2018 observation period, Oakland's air quality averaged 8.8 unhealthy ozone days, more than double the federal target of 3.2 unhealthy days. This average is calculated from the city's 20 "orange" ozone days, 3 "red" ozone days, and 1 "purple" ozone day. Oakland has never met federal ozone requirements since at least 1996.

Compared to other cities on a national level, Oakland ranked 8th for the worst ozone pollution out of 228 recorded metropolitan areas with these numbers.

Inhaling even small amounts of ozone can lead to breathing problems such as coughing, irritation and chest pain, as well as long-term health problems such as lung cancer, permanent lung damage and premature death.

Oakland tends to have a better grip on citywide PM2.5 levels. From 2003 to 2014, Oakland managed to meet both annual and 24-hour PM2.5 concentration targets. Recently, however, PM2.5 levels have been falling. Part of the challenge for Oakland is unpredictable forest fires, which have become more frequent and violent. The highest PM2.5 levels in Oakland are usually due to smoke from nearby forest fires.

While the 2019 annual average for PM2.5 met the US EPA's target, it missed the 24-hour PM2.5 target for an allowable number of unhealthy PM2.5 days. From 2016 to 2018, Oakland had a weighted average of 11.2 unhealthy PM2.5 days (well above the 3.2-day benchmark).

In 2019, Oakland ranked third nationwide for worst 24-hour PM2.5 out of 217 metropolitan areas included and fifth nationwide for annual particulate matter in 203 metropolitan areas.

PM2.5 is widely considered to be the most harmful air pollutant to human health. Exposure to PM2.5 has definitely been linked to health effects such as cardiovascular disease, respiratory disease and premature mortality.

While annual averages and trends indicate typical air pollution levels in Oakland, real-time and forecast data should be monitored for actionable insights into current conditions. Oakland's forecast air quality data is presented at the top of this page, below the city map. Monitoring the expected pollutant levels and following health advice can reduce pollution by up to 80 percent.

What is the largest source of air pollution in Oakland?

Mobile emissions from automobiles, ships, planes and trains are the largest source of air pollution in Oakland.3 While traffic emissions are a constant threat to Oakland's air quality, forest fires tend to give way to the city's most extreme pollution. Days or hours classified as "unhealthy" or worse have historically been recorded by smoke from forest fires in the Bay Area.

Oakland's weather and geographic location can exacerbate the challenges of the high-emissions city. Marine inversion conditions cause the polluted air in Oakland to become trapped near the ground. These ocean inversions are caused when the air cooled by the Pacific Ocean is covered by warmer, denser air flowing inland from the hills. Because the upper warm air layer prevents the cooler air below from rising and spreading normally, emissions accumulate and contribute to increased air quality index values ​​in the Bay Area.

Use the Oakland Air Pollution Map to identify the origin of pollution in real time. Watch as the wind carries PM2.5 pollution from forest fires, roads, and stationary emission sources to locations across the city.

Is Oakland Air Quality Unhealthy?

Oakland air quality often reaches unhealthy levels. The city's long history of struggling to meet federal air pollution levels has taken its toll on residents.

People who are sensitive to air pollution, such as children under 18 years of age, adults over 65 years of age, and people with pre-existing heart and lung conditions, are usually more affected than others. In the Alameda district there are 342,510 children under 18 years of age, 230,510 adults over 65 years of age and 280,387 with pre-existing medical conditions. All of these groups are exposed to acute health problems due to the high levels of air pollution in Oakland.

According to the California Department of Public Health (CDPH), asthma affects about 18 percent of teenagers in Oakland, a number about twice the national average. It is estimated that almost a third of these cases are due to poor air quality.

Differences in air quality between Oakland's many neighborhoods have resulted in differences in health outcomes for residents. West Oakland, a low-income, underserved neighborhood, is one such example. West Oakland residents are five times more likely to be exposed to unhealthy air pollution than their higher-income urban neighbors.

The health consequences for the residents of West Oakland are similarly grave. The data shows that residents here tend to live 7 years less than the average in Alameda County. While a number of attributive factors may play a role, respiratory diseases and related cancers are the leading killer in West Oakland, killing 176.8 deaths per 100,000 people between 2015 and 2017.

The disproportionate burden this community carries along with the East Oakland neighborhood is an environmental justice issue that must be addressed. Stricter government regulations on high-emission sources, fairer zoning, increased awareness-raising about the dangers of poor air quality, and free resources to combat indoor and outdoor air pollution are some of the means to better address this inequality in the future.

Why is Oakland so smoky?

The wildfires in the Bay Area are becoming more frequent and violent, giving way to smoky air quality conditions in Oakland. Some of the worst fires in the area have occurred relatively recently, with record-breaking acreage burned in 2017 and 2018. As of August, 2020 seems to be well on its way to outperform those years. Many environmental scientists attribute the growing problem of wildfires in the western United States to man-made climate change.4 The hotter and drier the conditions, the bigger, hotter and faster forest fires burn.

Climate change has already doubled the risk of extreme fire conditions in California, according to a study published by the Lamont Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia University. In the last 50 years, the annually burned area has increased eightfold, while at the same time summer temperatures have increased by 2.5 degrees.5

In August 2020, a series of forest fires near Oakland were ignited by a dry lightning storm. In the course of 3 days, around 11,000 lightning strikes triggered 367 fires in the area. Usually, lightning fires of this magnitude are rare. More than a decade has passed since the last "historic lightning siege". Most of the fires in the Bay region are actually started by humans - a consequence of defective power lines, arson, neglected campfires, cigarettes, etc. The "lightning siege" in 2020 resulted in more than 44,515 km of burned square kilometers in just 9 days, which is roughly the size of Rhode Island.6 The air pollution caused by the fires resulted in unhealthy air quality for several days. The air quality of San Francisco and San José was similarly affected.

The Oakland wildfires will continue to be a difficult source of emissions for years to come, especially amid warming temperatures. As long as climate change is not met with urgency, fire prevention must be based on the arduous task of clearing volatile rubble and forest undergrowth through manual removal or "prescribed fires" of low intensity. According to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Prevention (CAL FIRE), an estimated 32,375 to 40,469 km² currently need to be thinned out and "properly burned".7 However, it will be some time before such an ambitious target is achieved, especially given the current rate of clearing of one million hectares per year. By then, Oakland's smoky skies will likely be part of a seasonal trend.

Is Oakland Forest Fire Smoke Unhealthy?

In the past three years, five of California's most devastating forest fires have been near Oakland and contributed to unhealthy air pollution in the Bay Area.8 Often the worst air pollution incidents in Oakland are the direct result of smoke from forest fires.

In November 2018, Oakland's monthly AQI averaged 121, "unhealthy for susceptible groups" as a result of the Kincade Fire, Carr Fire, and the Mendocino Complex fire, which together burned over 607 square kilometers. This was the highest monthly average that Oakland has seen in recent history.

The August 2020 "lightning siege" fires also resulted in increased levels of toxic pollution. On August 21, 2020, Oakland averaged an AQI of 154, the highest rating of the year to date.

Increased air pollution levels in Oakland as a result of forest fires are more common from May to October, when conditions are particularly hot and dry. Follow the Oakland air quality advice at the top of this page for actionable insights into reducing pollution.

+ List of sources

[1] American Lung Association. (2020). State of the air - 2020.
[2] Current Results. (2020). Napa temperatures: averages by month.
[3] Smith C, et al. (2018, December 11). Oakland’s air quality problem: Can first-of-its-kind legislation solve it? Oakland North.
[4] Irfan U. (2020, August 21). What makes California’s current major wildfires so unusual. Vox.
[5] Ray S, et al. (2020, August 25). California’s new normal: How the climate crisis is fueling wildfires and changing life in the Golden State. East Bay Times.
[6] Andrew F, et al. (2020, August 23). 1.1 million acres burned in nine days in California, as new lightning-ignited blazes forecast into Monday. The Washington Post.
[7] Helvarg D. (2019, December 20). How will California prevent more mega-wildfire disasters? National Geographic.