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SALT LAKE CITY — The number of deaths caused by air pollution in the United States has gone down over the past decade, a new report shows, but while there have been some improvements made in Utah's air quality, Salt Lake City saw a sharp uptick in deaths linked to high ozone levels.
Salt Lake City was named the 23rd worst city in the country for "excess health impacts due to outdoor air pollution" — in other words, pollution-related deaths, serious illnesses and school or work days missed — in a study from the American Thoracic Society released Wednesday. The study also ranked Salt Lake City sixth in the country for the greatest increase in health impacts from ozone.
The region, like much of the country, has seen improvements in the realm of particle pollution levels. But while emission levels have gone down in the Wasatch Front in the past decade, ozone levels have not, a phenomenon state health officials say is largely due to changes in climate.
"We’re definitely trending in the wrong direction" when it comes to ozone levels, said study co-author and Utah resident Kevin Cromar, director of the air quality program at New York University's Marron Institute of Urban Management.
Across the U.S., there were 7,140 excess deaths linked to particle pollution and ozone pollution in 2017, down from 12,600 excess deaths in 2010. The number of particle pollution-related deaths dropped from 8,330 to 3,260, and ozone-related deaths decreased, too — albeit less drastically — from 4,270 to 3,880.
In Salt Lake City, the number of particle pollution-related deaths varied from year to year between 2010 to 2017, though there has been a general trend toward improvement in particle pollution levels, Cromar said. Bryce Bird, director of the Utah Division of Air Quality, credits that improvement to local, state and federal efforts.
Ozone levels are a different story. There was one death linked to high ozone levels in 2010, the report showed. That number steadily rose over the next seven years, reaching 26 deaths in 2017.
The report also found that Salt Lake City residents experience seven additional cases of lung cancer, 118 cases of serious illnesses, and 156,200 missed school and work days each year as a result of air pollution.
Addressing ozone levels can be trickier than lowering particle pollution levels, as ozone has more complex chemistry than particle pollution, according to Cromar and Bird. A high elevation with a high background concentration of ozone, combined with a growing urban population, makes controlling ozone levels particularly challenging in the Salt Lake City area.
When people say there’s no more low-hanging fruit, I totally disagree. There’s room for improvement in the Utah area for sure.
The study largely did not take into account the effect that wildfires have on Utah's air quality, Cromar said.
Local precursor emission levels tracked by the Utah Department of Environmental Quality have gone down in recent years. But the concentration of ozone has gone up.
"We’re not seeing the progress that we expected," Bird said.
Bird attributes the increase in large part to a changing climate, specifically, recent summers that have been warmer and drier than previous years.
"But that doesn’t alleviate us from the fact that we need to meet (EPA) standards," he added.
If Salt Lake City were to meet American Thoracic Society-formulated standards for ozone and particle pollution levels, which are stricter than the EPA's standards, the area could see an estimated 72 fewer deaths each year, according to the study.
But the region still has a ways to go before reaching the society's standards for ozone. The groupd has recommended a maximum concentration of 60 parts per billion, while the EPA has a less strict standard of 70 parts per billion.
"Right now, we’re still struggling to meet even less-protective EPA standards," Bird said.
Cromar, who also serves on Utah's Air Quality Board, said he believes it's possible for Salt Lake City to meet the American Thoracic Society recommendations through collaboration between local, state and federal entities. He said he sees ample opportunities for the region to reduce its pollution levels, though he declined to say exactly which steps he would like to see Utah take due to his position on the board.
"When people say there’s no more low-hanging fruit, I totally disagree," Cromar said. "There’s room for improvement in the Utah area for sure."