If national air pollution regulations were tightened, 72 fewer people in the Salt Lake City area would die every year, according to a recent study of the health impacts of bad air.
Salt Lake City is ranked 23rd among U.S. cities for highest number of excess health impacts from outdoor air pollution, according to a report presented this week at the American Thoracic Society’s annual international conference and published in the group’s medical journal, Annals of the American Thoracic Society.
The “Health of the Air” report takes the society’s recommended levels for two major air pollutants — ozone and PM 2.5 particulates — and compares them with the less stringent levels set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. If the nation adopted the society’s recommended pollution levels rather than the EPA’s, the report said, about 7,140 deaths nationwide would be avoided annually.
For the Salt Lake City area, the report finds that 46 fewer people would die from PM 2.5 pollution, and another 26 fewer would die from ozone, under stricter rules. Researchers estimate seven fewer people would be diagnosed with lung cancer, and 118 fewer people would contract serious illnesses.
What’s more, the area would see a big reduction in people taking time off of work or school because of health issues, gaining 51,462 working days lost due to PM 2.5 pollution and 104,780 lost days from excess ozone.
“We don’t really talk about the hidden costs of having worse air,” said Robert Paine III, chief of the pulmonary division of University of Utah Health, and a member of the society that published the report. “We look at the expense of clearing the air. We don’t look at the costs of having bad air.”
Salt Lake City’s figures for excess health effects tied to PM 2.5 haven’t changed much in the past 10 years, but have worsened for ozone, said Cheryl Pirozzi, a pulmonary physician at the University of Utah, and also a member of the society.
Effects from PM 2.5 in Salt Lake City are mostly felt in the winter, when the dreaded cold-air inversion settles over the valley, said Bryce Bird, air quality director at the state’s Department of Environmental Quality. Ozone, which is produced by pollutants chemically reacting in sunshine, increases during the summer, Bird said.
“Progress is difficult, because we are growing,” Bird said. “We’ve addressed the easy sources of air pollution, and now we have to address the harder ones.”
Pirozzi said individuals should do what they can — driving less and using public transportation more — but added, “I hope a report like this would bring action on more regulation.”