The American Lung Association gives nine Utah counties failing grades for pollution in its 2019 “State of the Air” even though air quality is improving over time, according to its 20th annual report released Wednesday.
The nationwide report examines ozone pollution and fine particle pollution, or PM 2.5, which is best known in Utah as the cause of winter smog episodes. Both have serious health impacts, such as increasing the risk of lung cancer, asthma attacks, cardiovascular damage, developmental and reproductive harm and even premature death.
This year’s report ranks Salt Lake City the 14th worst American city for ozone pollution. St. George, meanwhile, lands on the list of cities with the cleanest air.
Uintah, Duchesne and Tooele are among the rural counties that received “F” grades for ozone pollution in the 2019 State of the Air report. Meanwhile, all four Wasatch Front counties got failing grades for both ozone and winter smog episodes.
JoAnna Strother, director of advocacy for the American Lung Association, says the report’s goal has always been to raise awareness about air pollution and its consequences. She pointed out that air quality has improved over time, according to government data, in Utah and nationally, as mandated by the 1970 Clean Air Act.
“But it’s still not perfect,” she said. “It’s still dangerous. We’re still seeing very high days with ozone and particle pollution.”
Ongoing pollution problems illustrate the need to push for stronger anti-pollution policies everywhere, Strother said.
The Lung Association estimates that more than one-third of Utahns are especially vulnerable to air pollution because of their age or compromised health. Nationally, about 40% of Americans fall into this group of “sensitive individuals.”
Bo Call, director of monitoring for the Utah Division of Air Quality, echoed Strother’s point that air quality is improving over time. But he said reports like State of the Air are often confusing to people who wonder why there are so many failing grades when air quality is actually getting better.
The reason, he said, is that “we’re looking at two different sorts of data.”
For instance, Call said, the report does not reflect national changes in pollution standards over time. That means a pollution level that’s acceptable one year can be counted as “unhealthy” the next year.
Another example is that, over the three-year period from 2015 through 2017 that the Lung Association counted in the latest report, Salt Lake County received an “F” grade for an annual average of 21 days of high ozone. An “F” grade also went to San Bernardino County in California with an annual average of 161 days of high ozone.