Clean out Utah’s Bad Air

All air pollution matters. Even small increases cause significant damage to public health, affecting virtually all of us, even if we don’t have obvious symptoms.

By Brian Moench  Aug 29, 2019, 10:00am MDTFor the Deseret News

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency awarded $6 million to Utah to bolster efforts in cutting air pollution.

In 2007, Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment made the case that the health consequences of air pollution were analogous to those from smoking cigarettes — that intense particulate pollution typical of our winter inversions was a health risk similar to smoking several cigarettes a day. Some politicians and members of state agencies were angered by the claim, didn’t understand the research behind it and pressed a state employee to formally attempt to discredit the analogy. He used an engineering argument, not medical science, in a failed attempt to rebut it.

Nonetheless, hundreds of studies at the time, and many more since, have demonstrated that the biological, physiological and disease consequences of air pollution show nearly complete overlap with those from smoking.

Last week, a landmark study was published in one of the world’s most respected medical journals, the Journal of the American Medical Association, that not only quantitatively validates that analogy, but found that our claims actually grossly underestimated air pollution’s damage to the lungs compared to smoking.

Ozone is our primary pollutant in the summer. Following nearly 7,000 patients for 18 years, researchers found these dramatic results: Exposure to just 3 parts per billion, or ppb, of ozone for 10 years caused as much emphysematous loss of lung tissue and function, as what was found from smoking a pack of cigarettes a day for 29 years. Progression of emphysema was found in smokers and non-smokers alike. The senior coauthor of the study said, “We were surprised to see how strong air pollution’s impact was on the progression of emphysema on lung scans, in the same league as the effects of cigarette smoking, which is by far the best-known cause of emphysema.” Researchers always loathe to be accused of drama or alarmism, so when they used the word “surprised,” they really meant they were shocked.

Let’s put 3 ppb in context. The EPA’s supposedly “safe” level of ozone is anything less than 70 ppb. The annual mean ozone concentrations in major cities like New York and Los Angeles is about 25 ppb. For 2018, at virtually all the monitoring stations in Utah, even those in rural areas, the annual mean concentrations of ozone ranged from 43 to 47 ppb.

Ozone concentrations across the globe are increasing, even in rural areas, because its precursors, NOx and VOCs, can travel up to thousands of miles before combining to form the toxic gas. Just as important, because the reaction is catalyzed by atmospheric heat, global warming accelerates ozone formation. While our winter inversions get everyone’s attention, this study, and many that preceded it, demonstrate that ozone makes the plague of our air pollution a year-round health hazard.

While rising ozone is a worldwide problem, decisions are being made right now, both at the state and federal level, that will make our ozone even worse. They include more fossil fuel extraction in the Uinta Basin, allowing trucks to travel on our roads with stripped-out pollution controls, and more truck, train and airplane traffic from the proposed inland port. Any attempt to justify a policy, an industrial project, a new development, a new freeway or the aforementioned inland port, with the excuse that it will only increase our pollution a little bit, must be held against this stark, new scientific backdrop. All air pollution matters. Even small increases cause significant damage to public health, affecting virtually all of us, even if we don’t have obvious symptoms.

This study confirms that the EPA’s “safe” standard for ozone doesn’t come close to protecting us. Utah law allows the state to make standards stricter than the EPA. Legal tools exist for the Utah Air Quality Board to make significant advances in controlling a broad range of pollution sources in the state, actions that are legal, that are urgently needed in view of newly regressive actions and policies from the White House, but made even more urgent by this new research. But the AQB is allowing itself to be handcuffed by traditional Utah politics, where denial of the science is pervasive, and realistic solutions are routinely quashed.

If Utahns want clean air, a “citizen storm” will first have to clean out the stagnant air on Capitol Hill.

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