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Utah physicians: 'Safe' pollution levels still pose risk to elderly, unborn

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Utah physicians: 'Safe' pollution levels still pose risk to elderly, unborn

By Ryan Morgan | Posted - Jul. 14, 2017 at 9:35 a.m.


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SALT LAKE CITY — A group of Utah physicians believe EPA pollution guidelines may not be enough to protect the elderly and unborn.

On Wednesday, Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment shared its conclusions and concerns drawn from a pair of recent studies that found persistent health risks even when pollution levels are below EPA recommendations. The group concluded that between 1,000 and 2,000 Utahns may die annually as a result of air quality problems.

"Air pollution has a major adverse affect on the entire population of older adults, 65 and older," said Dr. Robert Paine, a board member with Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment.

He referred primarily to a study from the New England Journal of Medicine, which found negative effects from particulate and ozone pollution throughout the Medicaid recipients studied, and most prominently in low-income and minority populations.

"We see effects on mortality, even at levels of pollution that have been considered acceptable by the EPA," Paine said.

The study's analysis found that an increase of 10 micrograms per cubic meter of atmospheric particulate matter, or PM2.5, could increase mortality by 7.3 percent. Additionally, a 10 part-per-billion increase in ozone was associated with a 1.1 percent increase in mortality.

Paine said the study holds for both urban and rural residents.

The doctors group also cited concerns for pregnant women and newborns, noting another study suggesting that both chronic and acute ozone exposure in the week prior to birth could increase the risk associated with stillbirths. The 2004-08 study sampled over a quarter-million births nationwide, finding that ozone exposure was associated with a 13 percent to 22 percent increase in the risk of stillbirth.

"We estimate that maybe 100 extra stillbirths here in Utah have been related to ozone exposure," said Dr. Kirtly Jones, a professor emeritus of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Utah.

Jones said the risk existed even with ozone levels below the current EPA standards, 70 parts per billion.

"Yesterday we were reaching about 70 to 80 parts per billion here in Utah," Jones said.

The Hawthorne air monitoring station at Hawthorne Elementary School in Salt Lake City is pictured on Wednesday, July 12, 2017. (Photo: Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News)
The Hawthorne air monitoring station at Hawthorne Elementary School in Salt Lake City is pictured on Wednesday, July 12, 2017. (Photo: Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News)

Dr. Brian Moench, president of the physician group, said with Utah's generally healthy population, the state would typically expect to have fewer stillborn deaths than the national average, but Utah's numbers remain at about average.

"Whether or not we are losing more infants than Colorado isn't quite the point, the point is we shouldn't be losing infants to ozone but we know we all are," Moench said.

Moench also noted that the perception that pollution tends to target the oldest and most vulnerable of the population is not necessarily correct, saying an overall lifetime exposure shortens a person's life expectancy by about 10 years.

Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment encouraged the state to take steps to mitigate pollution, including offering incentives for renewable energy and taking a closer look at the "trivial and innocuous contributors" like campfires and fireworks.

"We allow or sanction fireworks and all the pollution associated with those for half the month of July," Moench said. "We can actually generate the worst air pollution this community ever experiences on those days of fireworks."

The growing "fad" of fireworks at baseball games and high school events has grown out of control, he said, adding that fireworks, fires and idling vehicles create a very localized pollution effect.

"The pollution level of you sitting at an intersection idling can be 30 times greater than just a couple blocks away," Moench said.

Moench said pollution can be mitigated by planting more trees and hedges in "urban canyons" and places where tall buildings can effectively trap in street level pollution. The group of physicians is hopeful that all of Utah's counties will strive to meet EPA pollution standards and continue efforts toward mitigating pollution.

"We can't make the pollution go away entirely," Paine said. "I would like to see the standards lowered. How far down they go depends a lot on the political conversation and some on the economic conversation." Email: rmorgan@deseretnews.com

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