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Wasatch Front Air Pollution: Lung Association Report Gives An "F" Grade

Judy Fahys
Utah's air pollution problem has prompted political action at Utah's State Capitol. Residents say they want tough laws to reduce pollution -- and its impacts.

Susan Lee has always been the kind of person to bike to her kids’ soccer games, hike the Grand Canyon with them or ride 500 miles for charity. So, the diagnosis nearly three years ago was shocking. She had a lung cancer.

“I have no history of cancer in my family,” says Lee, who’s on her way to a once-a-quarter monitoring scan.

There’s no smoking or smokers in her background. No radon buildup in her family’s Cottonwood Heights home that might explain lung cancer.

“None of those applied to me, so my greatest risk factor was the amount of time I spent outside in our air.”

The Wasatch Front counties stand out in the American Lung Association’s 18th annual State of the Air Report: All four received “F” grades for summer and winter pollution.

The report describes declining pollution nationally, particularly summer smog. Still, around forty percent of Americans -- and Utahns -- live with unhealthy air.

Salt Lake City is ranked seventh worst in the nation for particle pollution episodes and twentieth worst because of summer ozone.

“Having the awareness created is really what we’re aiming to do with this report,” says JoAnna Strother, who tracks policy in the association’s Southwest office, “so that people know that it can cause lung cancer, it can worsen asthma attacks, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.”

Meanwhile, Lee is one of 68,000 Americans with lung cancer who live in areas with “F” grades. She monitors daily pollution levels closely, because she’s now in one of those “sensitive groups” that pollution forecasters mention.

But she still finds it hard to believe.

“How could that be for someone who’s lived such a conscientious life?" she wonders. "And I just want to see that not happen to other people. This shouldn’t be happening.”

Lee now pushes for strong clean-air laws as part of the association's Lung Force national advocacy team.

Judy Fahys has reported in Utah for two decades, covering politics, government and business before taking on environmental issues. She loves covering Utah, where petroleum-pipeline spills, the nation’s radioactive legacy and other types of pollution provide endless fodder for stories. Previously, she worked for the Salt Lake Tribune in Utah, and reported on the nation’s capital for States News Service and the Scripps League newspaper chain. She is a longtime member of the Society of Environmental Journalists and Investigative Reporters and Editors. She also spent an academic year as a research fellow in the Knight Science Journalism program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In her spare time, she enjoys being out in the environment, especially hiking, gardening and watercolor painting.
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