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Reporting from the St. George area focused on local government, public lands and the environment, indigenous issues and faith and spirituality.

Air Quality Across The Country Is On The Decline; In Utah, The Answer Is Mixed

Photo of air pollution over the Great Salt Lake.
Brian Albers / KUER
A photo of air pollution in the Salt Lake valley. Salt Lake City was recently ranked by the American Lung Association as having some of the worst air in the country.

While air quality has been on the decline nationwide over the last two years, Utah has seen mixed results in the state’s efforts to rein in pollution.

Across the country, the number of “unhealthy” air quality days has increased by 15% over the past two years, according to a recent analysis by The Associated Press. The report is unclear on the causes of that change.

Utah has seen its air quality trends over the past two years shift by season — with cleaner air in winter and more pollution in summer, said Bryce Bird, the air quality director with the state’s Department of Environmental Quality.

One reason for the recent seasonal split is weather.

“Because our winters have been milder and have had significant storms, our winter conditions are much better than they've been over the past many years,” Bird said. “And because we've had consecutive dry hot summers, our ozone levels in the summertime have been higher than the past several years.”

The other factor is emissions.

According to data from the Utah Department of Environmental Quality, winter-time emissions along the Wasatch front have decreased by 38% since 2002, a trend that’s held steady over the past two years.

The main source of those emissions are vehicles. Bird said the overall decline over the past two decades largely can be traced back to incentive programs that make it easier for individuals to update their vehicles and take public transportation.

But individual choices are only part of the solution, according to Dr. Brian Moench, president of Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment, an advocacy group.

“That only gets you so far. We need to clean up the community-wide air pollution problem, and we do that through implementing public policy that makes sense,” he said, adding that air pollution at any level is harmful and must be taken seriously.

David Fuchs is a Report for America corps member who reports from KUER's Southwest Bureau in St. George.

Correction 8:44 a.m. 6/21/19 : A previous version of this story indicated that air quality across the county is on the decline. Air quality across the country is in decline. A previous version also included a misspelling of Dr. Brian Moench. It has been updated to reflect the proper spelling.

David is a reporter and producer working on Sent Away, an investigative podcast series from KUER, The Salt Lake Tribune and APM Reports.
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