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Know the West

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.


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