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When inversions cloud the Salt Lake Valley on winter days, one could easily give Salt Lake City failing grades for its air quality. The same could be said of summer days when ozone is trapped in the bowl between the Wasatch and Oquirrh mountain ranges.

Improving air quality needs to be a higher priority for all Utahns because of the known health risks of breathing polluted air. The American Lung Association's recent report, "State of Air 2009," for instance, says air quality in Utah cities is among the worst in the nation.

The report, which ranks Salt Lake City's air quality sixth worst in the country, requires further examination and reflection. The report may serve the interests of the nonprofit organization that produced it, but "State of Air 2009" paints an incomplete picture of the state's air quality on the whole.

On a handful of days each year, Utah is out of compliance with federal standards for ozone. Guilty as charged. But according to this report, a few days of noncompliance places Utah in the same company as California communities that exceed the same standards 90 times a year. This defies logic.

Over the decades, air quality has drastically improved nationwide. In the not-too-distant past, there was a constant black cloud over many large cities due to coal burning. Over time, tougher emissions standards for automobiles, large trucks and smokestacks have been implemented. Motor fuels burn cleaner.

In recent years, the Environmental Protection Agency has imposed more stringent standards for air quality. While Utah has imposed requirements intended to help the state meet federal air quality standards more consistently — imposing no-burn days or recommending that motorists carpool, take public transportation or telecommute when air quality is the worst — it fights two vexing problems: high mountains and low valleys that trap inversions and ozone, and human nature.

The state can do nothing about the former.

But Utahns, as individuals, could take many steps that would improve air quality, such as limiting their cars' idling time, keeping their tires properly inflated and keeping their vehicles well-tuned. At home, Utahns can help by properly maintaining their furnaces, purchasing energy efficient appliances and by using a snow shovel instead of a snow blower.

The Utah Division of Air Quality has 50 suggestions on its Web site at www.cleanair.utah.gov.

"State of Air 2009" serves an important purpose in attracting attention to the issue of air quality. But it is important to examine this issue in the proper context. Utah could do far more to improve its air quality, but it is misleading to lump it with communities that exceed air quality standards nearly a fourth of the year.