SALT LAKE CITY — While ugly winter inversions get all the attention, summertime ozone levels in Utah — particularly in the Salt Lake City, Park City and St. George areas — can be just as harmful to human health, if not more so, according to a new study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.
“Daily exposure takes its toll on the lungs,” said Dr. Kirtly Parker Jones, a local gynecologist and member of the board of the Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment, an advocacy group that used the timely article on Wednesday to speak out about pollution issues in Utah.
“Even a small rise in ozone increases the rate of development of emphysema and decreases the ability for people to breathe over time,” she said.
Ozone, Jones said, is colorless, nearly invisible and difficult to filter, and according to the study, causes damage to the lungs equivalent to smoking one pack of cigarettes a day for 29 years.
Increased levels of ozone in the summer are caused by a mix of heat with pollution, either from industry, vehicle emissions, vapors and chemical irritants, among other things, said Salt Lake pediatrician Dr. Sarah Johnson.
“It’s something we are creating and it is something we have to fix,” she said.
Dr. John MacFarlane, a neurosurgeon at Intermountain Medical Center and a member of the board at Physicians for a Healthy Environment, said two of his children were raised at a former home in Emigration Canyon and his two younger children lived in the Avenues area. The younger children, he said, both have asthma.
MacFarlane doesn’t blame the air quality solely for whatever may have caused health issues in his family, but did say it caused him to start thinking more seriously about a possible correlation.
He wants people to realize that pollution “isn’t just a summer problem.”
“It’s not just the valley. It’s not just the winter,” MacFarlane said. “We have to come to grips with this.”
The Journal of the American Medical Association study followed more than 7,000 people, smokers and nonsmokers, who live in six different U.S. cities from 2000 to 2018, tracking the association of lung damage to ambient ozone, particulate matter, nitrogen oxides and carbon concentrations.
It found that “long-term exposure to ambient air pollutants was significantly associated with increasing emphysema ... and with worsening lung function,” the article states.
Emphysema has no cure and “is an awful way to die,” Jones said.
Years ago, when the physicians group was founded, the doctors shared with lawmakers things about the environment — specifically pollution — that they believed carried serious public health risks, and Dr. Brian Moench, an anesthesiologist and board president, said officials refuted it.
The latest study, however, which he calls the “most definitive to date,” proves there is more than enough reason for concern.
The group is especially worried about ongoing talks of creating an inland port in the northwest quadrant of Salt Lake City, as well as potentially increasing fossil fuel extractions in Uintah County. Both would increase pollution levels considerably, said Moench.
“All air pollution matters, even at very small levels,” he said, adding that ozone safety standards set by the federal Environmental Protection Agency are “far too lax” and have not been adequately updated over the years.
“Those standards aren’t even close to protecting us,” Moench said.
He asks the public and, specifically, policymakers to pay attention to the evidence, which, he said has steadily built up over the years to show that air pollution can cause similar effects to humans as smoking cigarettes long term.
“Small levels of ozone have profound implications,” Moench said, “for everyone.”