Utah’s air quality may not be as bad as you think

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UTAH (ABC4) – Utah’s air quality has been a concern for many over the years. Even during a historic pandemic when many of us traded in our daily commute for a home office, inversion continues to be a significant topic of discussion.

With an unseasonably warm start to 2021 staving off the first real snowfall of the year into late into January, we have to ask, how has all this affected Utah’s air quality, and is it getting any better?

Interestingly, perception may not be reality.

On September 7, 2020, Salt Lake City was ranked as one of the worst cities for air quality in the world by IQAir, a Swiss air quality technology company that specializes in protection against airborne pollutants and developing air quality monitoring.

Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment advised people to take as many precautions as possible to protect themselves from the air pollution, including:  

  • Stay indoors and use air purifiers to improve indoor air quality.  
  • Don’t barbecue. Not only does barbecuing increase the pollution you inhale, it significantly increases toxic chemicals that you absorb through your skin and clothes.  
  • Don’t exercise in pollution levels this high.  
  • If possible, don’t add to the pollution by driving your car.
  • Eat healthy, with plenty of anti-oxidant rich foods.

However, as the pandemic persisted with its mandates and restrictions, and the year 2020 came closer to an end, the Utah Department of Environmental Quality (UDEQ) announced an Air Quality Milestone:

“Over the past two decades, and even more so within the past ten years, Utah has seen significant reductions in statewide air emissions. These reductions have come from industry efforts, government programs, and most importantly, the actions of individual residents.”

Utahns justifiably rejoiced in breathing cleaner air, but then the Utah Department of Air Quality warned that there was still more work that needed to be done.

“While the attainment of federal PM2.5 air quality standards is a major milestone, our work isn’t done,” says Utah DAQ. “The winter inversions that occur after a snowstorm will continue to pose risks to air quality in Northern Utah. Utah will need to continue its air quality improvement efforts to ensure that it continues to meet federal air quality standards.”

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  • Utah's air quality
  • Together4Utah_ Episode 1 - Air Quality_-1462039612103114093

Becky Close, the Environment Program Manager with the Utah DAQ, tells ABC4 how all this data is determined.

Pollution is defined as particulate matter, particles that are a certain size like PM2.5.

“So, PM2.5 is determined through multiple monitors throughout the state,” Close informs. “As PM2.5 monitors measure the pollutants in the air by the minute and by the hour, the data is then tracked and sent over to the EPA.”

According to Jared Mendenhall, also with Utah DAQ, there are about 24 active monitors across the entire state.

20 of those monitors sit on the Wasatch front and Cache County.

“Between Logan and Spanish Fork, that is where a majority of them are, there are some in Saint George, and there are some in parts of the Uintah Basin,” he adds.

According to Close, when concerning PM2.5, Utah’s air quality has actually been improving significantly for the last twenty years.

On the UDAQ’s website, air quality trends are showcased and updated daily, as seen below.

“We’ll still get days from here to there, that there is an inversion, but when you look at the actual monitor data, those values are pretty low,” she informs.

While experts agree air quality is improving, most recent data illustrates there is more work to be done when it comes to the effects of air quality and the health of Utahns.

A 2019 Utah Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System study indicates 9.9% of Utah adults suffer from asthma, nearly 1% above the national asthma average.

The Utah Department of Health lists air pollution as a key contributor to the inflammatory disease.

5.6% of Utah children battle with the respiratory illness.

Courtesy of Utah Department of Health

Close suggests the reason for the air quality improvement is for the last 10 years they’ve been working on state implication plans.

“These are plans that focus on reducing emissions, of small and large industrial sources,” she shares. “Those rules then have reduced pollution over time.”

This improvement is notable in light of the Trump administration’s repeal of 175 different environmental/public health/climate regulations according to an analysis by Columbia University.

One of the most significant was a rollback of auto emission standards

Dr. Brian Moench, President of the Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment, shares his insight into Utah’s current air quality.

“Given that the Utah Department of Environmental Quality has often stated that about half of the pollution on the Wasatch Front comes from vehicles, a rollback in fuel efficiency translates into more pollution for everyone, including the Wasatch Front,” Dr. Moench.

Nationally, pollution from automobiles increased in 2019 for the first time in five years, according to a January report by the EPA. However, according to Becky Close, Utah’s air quality overall has been seeing significant reductions despite that.

Though air quality is improving, there is still a long way to go according to both Dr. Moench and the UDAQ.

“Utah has made great strides in air quality over the last 10 years…I hope we can keep up that standard for the years to come,” Becky Close concludes.

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