Utahns are all too familiar with our state’s infamous poor air quality. Salt Lake County received an “F” grade from the American Lung Association, and the Salt Lake City-Provo-Orem area ranks 10th on its list of most polluted cities for ozone pollution, which we experience during the hotter months of the year.
Given the significant public health dangers of ozone pollution, also known as smog, our state needs to get its act together to clean up the air we breathe. Thankfully, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is poised to require Utah to do just that.
Recently, the EPA proposed to reject an attempt by our state’s leaders to blame dangerously high ozone levels — which are well above the national air quality standards — along the Northern Wasatch Front on emissions from Asian countries and to avoid important mandates to improve air quality. The state relied in large part on dubious modeling provided by Utah fossil fuel interests to support its claims.
We’re glad the EPA saw through this.
As experts in medicine and air quality, we know ozone pollution is highly detrimental to Utahns’ health and well-being. Ozone creates an inflammatory reaction that affects the entire body, much like smoking cigarettes. While the symptoms of ozone exposure usually manifest as difficulty breathing, the health effects are much broader, and include permanent loss of lung function, hospitalization for heart attacks and strokes, dangerous heart rhythms, increased risk of death and poor pregnancy outcomes, including still births. Data shows that on days with bad air, we see worse asthma attacks, an increase in heart attacks and increased risk of miscarriage.
Children are at greatest risk from exposure to ozone because their lungs are still developing, and they are more likely to be active outdoors when ozone levels are high. As parents, the dangers of poor air are always on our minds.
And while air pollution is a public health issue that affects all of us, its impacts are magnified across specific populations, particularly people of color, low-income communities, and Utah’s unhoused population. Largely due to longstanding racist policies, major sources of air pollution are located in communities of color, as well as low-income neighborhoods. Residents of these communities lack the resources to relocate elsewhere and otherwise protect their health from dangerous levels of emissions and are also more vulnerable to the health impacts of ozone pollution.
Utah positions itself as a family-friendly state, yet its leaders are subjecting citizens, including our most at-risk populations, to dangerous air.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Utah has a choice: cleaner air and healthier communities, or passing the buck in a race to the bottom.
The good news is that there are numerous solutions Utah can pursue right now to address its ozone pollution crisis.
Utah should accelerate the shift to affordable clean energy and electric highway vehicles, as many of its neighboring states — including those addressing high levels of ozone — have done. Further, the state could do more to reduce ozone precursor emissions from Utah’s refineries, mining operations and other industries. It could also limit pollution from and incentivize electrification of heavy industrial and construction equipment and lawn care devices. As climate change exacerbates ozone pollution in Utah, pursuing these and other common-sense measures cannot come soon enough.
We applaud the EPA for prioritizing the health of Utahns over the profits of polluters, and we encourage you to make your voice heard on this important matter. Tell the EPA you want Utah to do more to address harmful ozone pollution by filling out this petition before June 13.
Erica Colvin is an emergency physician at several Salt Lake City-area hospitals and the trauma medical director at LDS Hospital. Joro Walker is Western Resource Advocates’ general counsel and leads the organization’s air quality work. Both live in Salt Lake County.