SALT LAKE CITY — Although the most crowded cities along the Wasatch Front flunked an annual ranking for bouts of short-term spikes in unhealthy air pollution, the newest analysis acknowledges that local improvements are being made on the air quality front.
The American Lung Association's State of the Air 2013 report said Salt Lake City fared better in year-round average pollution levels, documenting the lowest overall readings since the assessment was first issued 14 years ago.
“Even though Salt Lake City has experienced increases in unhealthy days of short-term particle pollution, the air quality is still better compared to a decade ago," said Glenn Laham, executive director of the American Lung Association of Utah.
Salt Lake City did not make the list of the top 25 most polluted cities for ozone and instead came in 51st. It also failed to make the top 25 for year-round pollution.
The report gave glowing scores to Utah's Dixie, ranking St. George No. 2 for "cleanest" in year-round fine particulate pollution and Washington County No. 4. The county earned a B grade for its number of high ozone days in the assessment period from 2009 to 2011 and scored an A for winter smog.
But elsewhere, those short-term spikes in smog caused abysmal scores in areas along the Wasatch Front, earning the Salt Lake City-Clearfield-Ogden region the No. 6 spot in the country for people most at risk for exposure to an uptick in unhealthy air pollution levels.
Cache County's Logan followed in the No. 10 slot, with Provo-Orem ranked 11th.
Among counties, Salt Lake came in seventh, Cache was 12th and Utah was 14th.
Laham said those rankings demonstrate the hard work is not over.
"We must set stronger health standards for pollutants and cleanup sources of pollution in Salt Lake City to protect the health of our citizens," he said. "All Utahns need to be part of the solution.”
The variances in the scores are attributed to the time period the pollution levels are measured. The number of fine particulates or levels of ozone can spike for a few hours to a few weeks in short-term measurements or remain unhealthy on average on a daily basis year-round.
Donna Spangler, a spokeswoman with the Utah Department of Air Quality, said it's important for residents to note the improvements that have been made. And the flunking scores are not unexpected, she added.
"It certainly does not come as a surprise that we have periods of high pollution days throughout the year that are short-term, here and there," Spangler said. "I think that the good air quality year-round, that is the bigger picture."
Any unhealthy air day is unacceptable, she said, adding that she believes the slew of new regulations passed by the Utah Air Quality Board this year will help bring those levels down.
Advocates such as Cherise Udell say the bad grades show not only that the air is flunking, but elected officials are failing to take proactive measures to address the problem.
“These are not just abstract numbers on a spreadsheet," said Udell, founder of Utah Moms for Clean Air. "These are numbers with real life consequences, as every year between 1,000 and 2,000 people die prematurely in Utah due to our toxic air. Thousands more are hospitalized, countless days are missed from work and school, and for the majority of Utah citizens, our quality of life is simply diminished.”
Despite improvements made by many cities in the country to diminish average daily pollution levels, the American Lung Association said much remains to be done on a broad scale to clean up the nation's air.
Among the actions the group said should be taken are:
• Cleaning up gasoline and cars by moving to a tighter gas and vehicle standard before the end of this year.
• Increase funding to clean up the air by enhancing monitoring systems and implementing critical air quality programs.
• Cleaning up coal-fired power plants, which are the single largest producer of greenhouse gases, according to the association. The Environmental Protection Agency should finish its process for setting carbon pollution standards for new power plants and strengthen standards for existing plants.
• Strengthen ozone standards.
The American Lung Association’s State of the Air 2013 report is an annual, national air quality report card. The 2013 report — the 14th annual release — uses the most recent air pollution data, compiled by the EPA in 2009, 2010 and 2011.
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