SALT LAKE CITY (ABC4) – Utahns are no strangers to air pollution. Wildfires, winter inversion, and smoggy skylines feel more and more common across the state. ABC4 spoke to Nick Torres from the American Lung Association about their “State of the Air” report that gave most of Utah failing grades for air pollutants.

Torres is an advocacy director for the American Lung Association, and has worked there for over six years. He says that he got involved in his current position because he “has loved ones who have been affected by lung disease” that air pollution is to blame for.

Torres says that while initially shocking, the news isn’t all bad. While Utah has a long way to go, “it’s headed in the right direction.” For example, Torres references how the report moved Salt Lake City from the 8th worst air quality for cities in the nation to 10th place after this years report, which compiles data from 2017-2020.

The “State of the Air” report primarily looks at ground level ozone and other particulate in Utah’s air. Ground-level ozone is different from atmospheric ozone; while ozone in the atmosphere helps shield the planet from the sun’s radiation, the same molecules can be toxic when found at ground level, where they aren’t supposed to be. In short, ozone is good for us high in the atmosphere, and bad for us in the air we breathe.

Torres says that the American Lung Association calls ozone’s effects a “sunburn on the lungs.” When ozone reaches the lungs, it oxidizes and can create short term symptoms such as asthma attacks, shortness of breath, and chest tightness. It also can be traced to long term respiratory and cardiovascular illness, especially for those with preexisting conditions. According to Torres, children frequently exposed to ground level ozone are more likely to develop asthma and reproductive illnesses.

The primary cause of ground level ozone is high levels of vehicle traffic, which explains why it is frequently found in metropolitan areas. “Humans are causing the overwhelming majority of ground level air pollution,” says Torres, and continues to report that large diesel engines found in trucks are also to blame. Salt Lake City’s ozone problem is exacerbated by its local topography, which keeps the ozone from dissipating back into the atmosphere at normal rates, resulting in the inversions Utahns are familiar with. Torres also mentions oil and gas extraction and burning fossil fuels as contributors to poor local air quality.

When asked what can be done to fix air pollution in Utah in the long run, Torres has great faith in the impact of cheaper, more available electric vehicles in Utah. This and policy changes that set higher emissions standards can do a lot to mitigate air pollution.

Until Utah air quality gets better, Torres recommends that people get informed as best as they can. Air quality can change from day to day, so he recommends checking airnow.gov to see daily air quality nearby. If daily air quality is exceptionally poor, Torres recommends limiting outdoor activity on those days. In the case of pollutants from wildfires, Torres says there is evidence that N95 or KN95 masks can help prevent harm for short term exposure.

Torres encourages those interested in the “State of the Air” report to visit lung.org/sota to get more information. He also encourages Utahns to lobby their legislators to set higher standards for air pollutants in vehicles and industry.