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SALT LAKE CITY — The air quality in Utah’s highest-populated counties worsened in a three-year span that ended in 2018, and wildfires may have played a role in that, according to an annual report released by American Lung Association on Tuesday.
In all, the organization’s "State of the Air" report gave F grades for ozone to seven of the 14 Utah counties included in the report, while six also received F grades for short-term particle pollution. Davis, Salt Lake, Utah and Weber counties are the only counties with F grades in both categories.
The report didn’t offer all bad news, though. All counties with enough data received passing grades from the national health organization when it came to annual high-particle pollution. In addition, San Juan County was listed as one of the cleaner counties in ozone counts, while Uintah and Washington counties received high grades for short-term particulate matter counts.
The state of Utah air
The American Lung Association, which is in its 21st year of its "State of the Air" reports, looks into three pollution categories: ozone, short-term particulate matter and annual particulate matter counts. Ozone is a gas molecule with three oxygen atoms that is developed from greenhouse gases and sunlight to create smog; particulate matter, or PM2.5, are the particles that come predominantly from things like burning of fossil fuels or wood. Both factor into air quality.
Data collected in the report always comes with a lag, which means the 2020 report doesn’t include 2019 data, which is still being collected. The data collected is between 2016 and 2018, and it includes rankings of areas with the best and worst air qualities.
The report lists the number of people most at-risk for illness due to poor air quality, and found that more than 300,000 Utahns had some lung disease, such as adult asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease or lung cancer. Adding in other groups such as those above 65 or younger than 18, or people with heart disease, who smoke, live in poverty or are persons of color, the group states most of Utah is at risk because of poor air quality.
The organization rated the Salt Lake City-Provo-Orem metro area as the seventh-most at-risk area for short-term air pollution — a tie with Missoula, Montana, and Redding-Red Bluff, California — in that category, which is rated by particulate matter counts in a 24-hour period. The Salt Lake-Provo-Orem area was eighth in last year’s report. Logan was ranked 13th on that list.
Utah County, at 18th, and Salt Lake County, at 22nd, were placed in the bottom 25 U.S. counties for short-term particulate matter air pollution.
The Salt Lake City-Provo-Orem area also placed 11th in most ozone-polluted cities in the U.S., moving up from the 14th spot in the 2019 report. Salt Lake County was also listed as the 18th worst county for ozone pollution in the U.S.
Some of the increases on the lists result from shifting data across other areas in the country, said JoAnna Strother, the American Lung Association’s senior director for advocacy in Utah and other southwestern U.S. states.
"Sometimes when you see that ranking jump, it could be that other cities or metro areas improved, so sometimes the ranking goes up," she said in a phone interview with KSL.com.
But the American Lung Association does report upticks in pollution. For example, it reported ozone increases Box Elder, Davis, Duchesne, Salt Lake, Tooele, Utah, Washington and Weber counties compared to the 2019 report. Aside from Weber, all of those counties reported slight upticks in annual particulate matter counts too. It reported small drops in both levels in Cache County.
The annual report wasn’t damning for all of Utah. All counties with enough data received passing grades for annual particulate matter counts and St. George was rated as being the ninth-cleanest city in terms of annual particulate matter air quality. Washington and Uintah counties also made the list for cleanest short-term particulate matter counts. Utah cities also avoided making the 25 worst year-round particle pollution locations list.
Factors for worsening air quality
The 2020 report is the organization’s first report to include 2018, which was one of the worst fire years in Utah and across the west. It also bumped 2015 from the analysis and Strother noted that 2015 was a relatively cleaner year overall than 2018.
In all, about 8.8 million acres of U.S. land burned in 2018 — a size larger than nine different U.S. states. As you may recall, Utah was among the heavily hit states; more than 485,000 acres were scorched across the state in 2018. That year, smoke from massive California wildfires also contributed to poor air quality in Utah.
Air quality from the Pole Creek and Bald Mountain fires in Utah County was so bad at times that some high school football games near the fire were canceled.
"It actually plays a big factor in this year’s report," Strother said. The report notes that heat and drought in recent years have increased wildfire hazards, which were seen especially in 2017 and 2018.
Utah also has its challenges related to inversions, which help trap pollution in the atmosphere, which the report mentioned. However, climate change is one of the largest factors affecting Utah and the southwest U.S., Strother added.
The warming temperatures experiences in the U.S. matched with the large amounts of sunlight experienced in the region are a recipe for increased ozone. In fact, the 11 worst metropolitan areas for ozone are in either California, Arizona, Nevada, Colorado or Utah.
"These past five years have been the warmest on record, so we know that climate change is starting to play a big factor in air pollution and definitely making it harder to clean up our air," Strother said.
Trying to clear the air
The Clean Air Act was signed into law in 1970 and has greatly improved the country’s air quality over time. Along with aiming to improve air quality, it created the Environmental Protection Agency.
Fifty years later, the American Lung Association says it’s trying to continue improving air quality and that includes opposing legislation that would weaken the 1970 law, Strother explained.
"The science is clear and we really need the (Trump) administration and Congress to adopt science-based solutions to reduce emissions that are causing climate change," she said. "We need the EPA to set stronger limits on particle and ozone pollution."
There have also been efforts to improve air quality from state officials, too. Those include limits on wood-burning during inversion, efforts to have people drive less and use public transportation more, and a recent move to Tier 3 fuels, which are cleaner fossil fuels. More favorable weather helped the Wasatch Front have fewer severe air quality days over the past winter.
As the state’s ozone season begins at the end of May, the Utah Department of Environmental Quality rolled out a "#NoMowDays" campaign to reduce emissions caused by gas-powered lawnmowers. The agency points out that one 3.5-horsepower gas mower can emit the same amount of emissions as 11 new cars. The project includes a program where people can receive $120-$150 vouchers for purchasing electric mowers instead.
"We know that individuals can certainly play their part if they commit to driving less, using less electricity and not burning wood or trash will certainly all help to clean up the air," Strother said. "We all kind of have to do our part."