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Even though the Pacific Ocean is hundreds of miles away, Utah's air quality is judged as if the mountainous state were at sea level.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency requires Utah and other Western states to adjust measurements for fine particulate, or PM10, pollution upward to make up for the fact that there is less oxygen at high altitudes. Once the state Air Monitoring Center collects actual PM10 samples, it must apply "EPA reference conditions" - a 75-degree day at sea level - to the numbers."It's been a frustration for a number of years," said Robert Dalley, air monitoring center manager for the Utah Division of Air Quality.

State and Utah County officials are trying to convince the EPA that Utah should not be punished for being 4,500 feet above sea level.

"I'm just getting tired of weird bureaucratic science," said Utah County Commissioner Jerry Grover.

"This is another perfect example of a technical mistake by a bureaucrat that is costing Utah County all federal transportation monies. We should not be held to a stricter pollution standard than California and other low-lying states."

Applying the "correction" factor can increase actual PM10 concentrations more than 15 percent, Grover said. Fine-particulate pollution - smoke, dust, soot - is not to exceed 150 micrograms per cubic meter, according to federal health standards.

Inflating the figures results in Utah County reporting erroneous PM10 levels to the EPA, he said.If, for example, the monitor shows 140 micrograms per cubic meter of PM10, applying the EPA formula could push it above the standard, causing violations that could bring even tighter pollution restrictions on the county and state.

The EPA theorizes that people who live at high altitudes must breathe more to get sufficient oxygen. In doing so, they could be inhaling more particulates than the standard allows.

"To justify this correction, EPA assumes that because the air is thinner at our altitude, we somehow breathe 15 percent faster or have gigantic lungs. Both assumptions are bogus," Grover said.

Studies at the University of Utah and at the Reno-based Desert Research Institute show that show there is no evidence that people living at higher altitudes would inhale more particulates because of the thinner air. The studies show that blood-gas percentages are roughly the same for people at sea level and high altitudes.

"People are exposed to actual PM10 levels, not EPA reference conditions," Dalley said.

Russell Roberts, air quality division director, said adjusting the numbers is inappropriate. Two previous attempts by the state in 1970s and 1980s to change EPA's thinking on the issue were unsuccessful.

Now might be an opportune time raise the issue again because EPA is looking to make fine-particulate pollution standards more stringent. The Air Quality Division is preparing a technical argument for Gov. Mike Leavitt to send to the EPA. Grover sent one from Utah County late last month.

Should the EPA factor out the sea level standard, it would change the way PM10 is measured nationwide.