Air Up There | News | Salt Lake City | Salt Lake City Weekly

Air Up There 

Doctors say Utah’s air isn’t as clean as feds claim.

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It might be difficult to believe during winter inversion season, or when the ozone warnings start up this summer, but Utah’s air used to be dirtier.

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That’s in part because ever stiffening federal pollution standards have forced cleanup of smokestacks and car exhausts. A recently released Utah plan for monitoring the state’s air recommends closing down many monitors that sniff out pollutants no longer causing a problem.

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And federal air standards are getting stiffer. Utah air quality regulators are currently working to implement new Environmental Protection Agency standards for PM 2.5, microscopic byproducts of exhaust that build up in Utah valleys in winter and can irritate the lungs. Similarly, the EPA is expected to announce this summer it’s cutting down the amount of ozone allowed in the air.

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But if it sounds like the feds have your breathing health covered, you’d be wrong'at least according to Utah clean-air activists pressuring state regulators to set stricter air pollution limits than the EPA requires.

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The new federal standards for PM 2.5 allow about half as much of the pollutant as the old standard but still let a lot more gunk in the air than science suggests is healthy, said Kathy Van Dame, director of the Wasatch Clean Air Coalition.

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The EPA’s new PM 2.5 standards are based on science that is nearly a decade old, said Van Dame. She noted that the EPA’s own science advisory group asked for a tougher standard than was implemented.

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Dr. Richard Kanner, a member of a group of physicians now pressuring Utah to develop its own set of clean-air standards, said it is a case of politics getting in the way of science.

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“The current administration is pressuring the EPA to not put in a standard that will provide a healthy environment,” said Kanner, a pulmonary specialist doctor on the faculty of the University of Utah School of Medicine and a member of Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment.

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The physicians group has asked Utah’s air-quality-policy body, the Utah Air Quality Board, to help determine if federal guidelines are strict enough to ensure the board is meeting its mandate to protect health. At its June meeting, the board agreed and voted to appoint a panel of scientists to examine the question. The board hopes to have the scientists’ report back by February.

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If the air-quality board decides to implement tougher air-quality standards than the federal government, it would put Utah in league with California, currently the only state in the nation allowed total local control over air pollution.

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Kanner thinks setting Utah-specific air quality standards will be a tough sell politically but said the science is clear. For PM 2.5, “there is no threshold level below which it is safe,” he said. “The more of the air pollutant, the more [medical] symptoms, the higher the mortality rate, the more ER visits.”

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The tiny particles get into the lungs and can lead to breathing and heart problems and hasten death in the elderly.

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Both Kanner and Van Dame praised Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr.’s recently announced initiatives on climate change, including Huntsman’s signing on as one of six Western governors pledged to reduce greenhouse gasses.

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Dianne Nielson, longtime head of Utah’s Department of Environmental Quality, recently named as Huntsman’s new energy adviser, said the work on climate change will directly benefit air quality. The governor additionally is interested in increasing efficient energy use in buildings and cars which, Nielson said, also should help clean the air.

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If Utah does clamp down on air quality regulations, the result won’t be automatically clean air. Rather, the immediate result would be an increase in the number of days on which people are warned not to breathe outdoors. But that is all to the good, said Kanner. Without such warnings, the average car driver won’t be motivated to make lifestyle changes needed to clean the air.

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“We have met the enemy, and they is us,” he said. “The average guy driving a car says, ‘Go after those big guys and leave me alone.’ They’ve got to understand, collectively, they are the big guy.”

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