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Utah’s air quality: Tracking the pollutants and cleaning them up

Published: Friday, Sept. 4 2015 11:00 a.m. MDT

Smog and fog gather in the valley with the University of Utah campus in the foreground during the inversion Friday, Dec. 13, 2013, in Salt Lake City.  
 (Tom Smart, Deseret News/KSL Chopper Five) Smog and fog gather in the valley with the University of Utah campus in the foreground during the inversion Friday, Dec. 13, 2013, in Salt Lake City. (Tom Smart, Deseret News/KSL Chopper Five)

This is the second part of a three-part series. Read the first part of the series here.

It’s the beginning of inversion season in Utah. The unique topography in the state can trap pollutants in the valleys creating thick blankets of dirty smog.

Scientists estimate that about half of the dangerous pollutants in the state are emitted from cars and trucks. The other half, called “point source emissions,” comes from homes, businesses and big industry. They all leave a unique fingerprint on the environment. Scientists can identify the compounds emitted into the air and follow the direction they are moving in the wind.

Experts did not, however, have the same tools to monitor the air decades ago when the old Geneva Steel mill used coal-fired furnaces to refine the metal east of Utah Lake. An environmental economist at Brigham Young University wondered about the affects emissions from Geneva were having on public health.

When a work stoppage hit Geneva, Arden Pope gathered data on pediatric hospital admissions throughout northern Utah from the time period before the shutdown until Geneva reopened. Pope says that Geneva’s impact on air quality and human health was apparent.

Pope explains, “It turned out the results were quite dramatic and quite obvious that Geneva Steel had a substantial impact on the air quality in the valley and that that air quality was impacting the health of our children. In the initial studies what we saw was pediatric respiratory hospital admissions, mostly bronchitis and bronchiolitis and related respiratory disease was strongly associated with the operation of the steel mill as well as the air pollution associated with that steel mill.”

Rates of asthma and respiratory problems were twice as high when Geneva was in operation. Pope adds, “We thought it was just going to be respiratory disease, but after more and more research, it became apparent that exposure to air pollution not only contributes to respiratory disease but cardiovascular disease and cardio pulmonary disease.”

The Geneva Steel mill is gone, but Utah Moms for Clean Air still believes “big industry” is sending an inordinate amount of toxins into the air. The organization’s president, Cherese Udell, says, “Even though most refineries are in compliance with federal laws they are still externalizing a lot of the costs of their air pollution onto the community.”

With today’s technology, and the ability to track the compounds in the air directly to the source, scientists will be able to more accurately pinpoint and track the major polluters.

Copyright 2015, Deseret News Publishing Company