Photos: The costs of air pollution in Bakersfield, California

In the Central Valley, oil and agriculture both support and harm communities, making air pollution a complex problem.

  • Children play little league baseball in Bakersfield, California. One in five children in the area have asthma, the leading cause of absenteeism in Bakersfield City Schools.

    Lexey Swall
  • Dust devils reaching toward the sky during dry months in Bakersfield. Dust is a pervasive problem that diminishes air quality. The problem is exacerbated by the drought in California.

    Lexey Swall
  • A dust storm blows through Bakersfield, California.

    Lexey Swall
  • Kern County resident Hayden Gamino, 8, catches his breath between laps during swimming practice. "It feels like a wasp stinging my lungs," said Gamino about his asthma attacks.

    Lexey Swall
  • Dylan Ivey, 7, was recently released from the hospital after being admitted for almost a week because of a severe asthma attack.

    Lexey Swall
  • Cheerleaders for the Bakersfield High School football team practice before a game. The words "Driller Country" are painted all over campus: a reference to the mascot, the Driller. Bakersfield High School is the only school in the area whose mascot reflects the oil culture of the region.

    Lexey Swall
  • Oil pumps can be seen for miles in Western Kern County, California.

    Lexey Swall
  • Merced Mendoza moves irrigation pipe in a field that will be used to grow alfalfa. The field is adjacent to and owned by Kern Oil and Refining Co. Mendoza leads a men's group at Victory Outreach Church in Bakersfield that rents the land from the refinery to grow alfalfa that is then sold to a local dairy for feed. The money earned from the feed helps fund the men's program for the church.

    Lexey Swall
  • A haze of dust and smog hangs over the valley floor of Bakersfield, California, left. Scott Mathis, 38, an oil well site manager, has two oil derricks and a crop duster tattooed to his back, right. Mathis is a fourth generation oil field worker; his grandfathers and a great-grandfather were all oil drilling hands. "I was born with like 10 years experience," Mathis says.

    Lexey Swall
  • Lucy Clark, 72, who has asthma, wears a mask every day when she walks to get her mail because her home in the foothills north of Bakersfield, California, sits at an elevation where smog begins to settle in the air.

    Lexey Swall
  • Asthma educator Sharon Borradori, left, shows Margarita Hernandez, center, and her husband, Severo Velasco, right, how their 2-year-old son, Mauricio Velasco will use an inhaler when he's older. Mauricio was recently released from the hospital after suffering from an extreme asthma attack.

    Lexey Swall
  • Gustavo Aguirre, a community organizer with Global Community Monitoring, attaches a particulate monitor to a pole near Community Recycling & Resource Recovery, Inc. outside Arvin, California, in Kern County. The monitor will run for 24 hours to collect PM 2.5, particulate matter in the air that indicates acute health risks.

    Lexey Swall
  • Samantha Olivarez, 9, from left, and her cousins, Isabel Olivarez, 5, and Daisy Olivarez, 7, play near their home in Arvin, Calif. The homes across the street were evacuated after a gas pipe leaked underground. According to reports, the 40-year-old pipe was leaking for as long as two years before it was detected. Olivarez's family is worried about possible health risks in the area due to the pollution.

    Lexey Swall

 

Bakersfield, California consistently ranks as the top most polluted place in the U.S., according to the American Lung Association. The city, located in Kern County, sits in a wide valley at the southern end of the San Joaquin Valley, bordered on three sides by mountain ranges. Like most of its neighbors in the Central Valley, Bakersfield is a huge oil and agriculture hub for the state. But those powerful industries, combined with its geography, contribute to extremely poor air quality, through dust that is kicked into the atmosphere during harvest, exhaust from diesel engines that power the machinery used on farms, and the transportation of crops. That has led to high rates of respiratory diseases like asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, as well as cardiovascular disease and cancer. Photojournalist Lexey Swall grew up in Bakersfield, and in 2012, she started documenting her hometown’s outdoor air pollution problem to illustrate the toll it takes on the people who live there.

Unfortunately, Swall says, it turned out to be rather easy to photograph the air. Pollution was visible everywhere she looked. But the project, called “All of the Above,” also showed her the complexity of the issue.  “It wasn’t black and white,” she says. “Nearly everyone in the town is supported by some type of industry that also contaminates their air quality. It’s delicate.”  Lyndsey Gilpin, High Country News