Clearing the air: That air you're breathing may be slowly killing you

Published: Saturday, Aug. 11 2012 1:00 p.m. MDT

• Americans are suffering from asthma in record numbers, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, with nearly one in 10 children and one in 12 adults afflicted. In areas of Utah where air quality is the poorest, there are higher hospitalization rates for those suffering asthma.

An estimated 65,000 children in Utah suffer from asthma, according to the health department, and a recent analysis it conducted in tandem with the National Weather Service shows that the longer a wintertime inversion lasts, the higher likelihood exists that it will result in a trip to a hospital emergency room for asthma sufferers.

• A group of Utah physicians said the unhealthy air is a crisis that kills as many as 2,000 people along the Wasatch Front each year, and shaves two years off of a person's life.

Utah's air quality regulators are up against a Dec. 14 deadline to submit their plan to the federal government on reducing the tiniest particles of air pollution, or PM2.5. A draft is expected to be presented to the air quality board members next month.

Three areas in Utah that are "non-attainment" for compliance with federal clean air standards are among 32 in the country that have not been able to bring fine particulate pollution under control.

Within those three areas are the valley portion of Utah County, all of Salt Lake and Davis counties, the valley portion of Weber County, the eastern edge of Tooele County, the southeastern portion of Box Elder County and the valley portion of Cache County.

To come into compliance and meet with EPA's approval, an entire suite of changes to pollutant-emitting sources is being contemplated in the impacted areas, and Utah regulators stress that everything is a target.

"Nothing is off the table, and it is a big table," said Dave McNeill, manager of the Division of Air Quality's Planning Branch.

Clearing the air

So what would it take to clear the dirty air along the Wasatch Front?

The mountains and the Great Salt Lake are two big topographical players in a minuet that helps to foster the air pollution problem.

"There are plenty of locations around the world that have unhealthy wintertime inversions, but the severity that we have is worsened because of the surrounding terrain," said John Horel, an atmospheric science professor at the University of Utah.

He and the university's David Whiteman have been coordinating the state's largest field study in more than a decade probing Utah's winter inversions and the atmospheric factors that come into play.

"What can happen is at certain times you can get enough flow that it can push some of the pollution over the Great Salt Lake, and then it comes sloshing back," Horel said. "We are not in a teacup, but we are certainly affected by the mountains. … We are in a tough situation. The deck is kind of stacked against us."

Utah's air quality regulators can't very well bulldoze the mountains or drain the Great Salt Lake, so those two environmental components shaping pollution patterns will remain constant companions. That puts more pressure on the need to eliminate other problems. And the biggest problem flows from the tailpipes of trucks and cars, which are estimated to cause 55 percent of the pollution fueling wintertime inversions along the Wasatch Front.

To get rid of that component of air pollution, it would mean eliminating the more than 459,000 trucks, cars and motorcycles that travel daily on I-15 through Utah, Salt Lake, Davis and Weber counties.

Those numbers, from 2011, are annual counts of traffic compiled by the Utah Department of Transportation and show that despite gains in public use of mass transit, Wasatch Front residents by and large don't want to give up their cars.

One Tooele County resident who is involved in a state working group crafting ways to curb pollution put it this way:

"They all agreed it would be a good idea to drive less, and no one does it."

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