Overshadowed by recent election drama are Utah problems that preceded the election and will continue long afterwards. For years, air quality has been at or near the top of concerns for Utah voters, and with good reason. Everyone knows the Wasatch Front is capable of air pollution buildup that can rival the worst in the country. For many years, we have been in “nonattainment” status for Environmental Protection Agency’s 24-hour PM 2.5 standard, which reflects our acute spikes during winter inversions.

The EPA is proposing to reclassify Salt Lake City and Provo as attainment for the 24-hour standard. To the extent that our winter inversions have become less intense is obviously to everyone’s benefit. But there is much more to our pollution story.

When we beat COVID-19, we cannot backtrack on air pollution
Winter inversion could make the COVID-19 pandemic worse

Other types of pollution have been increasing. Wildfire pollution now consistently fouls our air from June through September. Catalyzed by hotter atmospheric temperatures from global warming, ozone is increasing throughout the world. Rural Utah now has higher levels of ozone pollution than downtown Los Angeles, the result of precursors emitted hundreds, if not thousands of miles away.

The standard we have finally met was set in 2006 and is almost irrelevant today. The Clean Air Act requires that EPA revisit standards every five years, and make adjustments to reflect the new research. For a variety of reasons related to politics, and not related to science, the 24-hour standard has not been made any more strict since then, despite calls to do so from all the relevant medical associations for at least the last decade. 

Since 2006, medical research has greatly expanded our knowledge of just how damaging air pollution is to personal and public health. Levels of pollution below that standard are not safe, even for 24 hours. Smoking just one cigarette a day is almost half as much risk as smoking a full pack. That same nonlinear relationship exists with community air pollution. There is no safe level. We’re all affected whether we have symptoms or not, but the risk is not evenly distributed. In the Salt Lake Valley, the west side continues to suffer more pollution than the east side. 

New medical research has confirmed pollution nanoparticles become literally embedded in our organs. A recent autopsy study found up to 22 billion pollution nanoparticles per gram of tissue in the heart muscle of young patients that had lived in a heavily polluted city. The average age of the patients was only 25 years old. Every patient had significant contamination, even toddlers.

Other studies have found similar contamination of our brains, lungs, kidneys, blood vessels, and in the case of a pregnant mother, the placenta, which means fetuses and newborns are contaminated as well. Even short-term pollution spikes leave these particles in our bodies, causing biologic damage for months afterwards. Some of these particles may never leave. 

Air pollution is the fourth-leading cause of death worldwide. An incomplete list of the diseases associated with air pollution includes: heart attacks, strokes, Alzheimer’s, cancer, most lung diseases, birth defects, miscarriages, stillbirths, pregnancy complications, Type II diabetes, arthritis, pneumonia and virtually all types of infections. Because air pollution damages chromosomes, it even harms the unborn. Because it damages sperm and egg cells, it even harms the unconceived. 

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As I write this, Utah and the nation are overwhelmed with a deadly pandemic, which has added a new reason to address our air pollution. The COVID-19 virus can hitch a ride onto particulate pollution and increase its potential for spread from one person to the next. Once infected, acute and chronic pollution makes the disease more potent and more lethal to its victims.  

Yes, any improvement in our air pollution is welcome news. But that should not obscure what we now know, much more so than in 2006, how much damage we have been doing to our health and our life expectancy.  

If our winter inversion pollution has indeed decreased, the celebration should be short-lived, knowing that if we proceed with the inland port, it will undo any progress that we’ve made. This re-designation must not become a permission slip to bring in new sources of pollution or pretend that the problem is solved. 

Dr. Brian Moench is the president of Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment.

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