Study finds air pollution reduces life expectancy in Utah

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) This Dec. 11, 2017, file photo shows the Salt Lake Valley during a winter inversion that traps polluted air. A new BYU study found that air pollution causes thousands of premature deaths each year in the state and cuts into residents' life expectancy.

Utah’s poor air quality takes a heavy toll on the state’s economy and its residents’ longevity, according to research released this week by Brigham Young University.

In the peer-reviewed study, an interdisciplinary research team led by graduate student Isabella Errigo concluded air pollution results in between 2,500 and 8,000 premature deaths each year in Utah, decreasing the median life expectancy by 1.1 to 3.6 years.

“It was a real eye opener to see quantitative estimates of how serious the health and economic costs of air pollution are for the people of Utah,” said Errigo, who is pursuing a master’s degree in BYU’s department of plant and wildlife sciences. “The consequences of dirty air can seem very abstract until you read the medical research connecting the quality of our environment to our personal health.”

Published this week in the journal Atmosphere, the study emerged hardly a week after the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency formally proposed reclassifying polluted airsheds along the Wasatch Front as in “attainment” — or in compliance with federal standards — for fine particulate matter, or PM2.5. The soupy pollution associated with Utah’s wintertime inversions is implicated in various diseases.

That move by the EPA recognized the strides Utah has made toward reducing emissions, but officials acknowledge there is still much room for improvement and they seek to reduce emissions by 25% by 2026.

Drawing from contributions of 23 scholars, the BYU study employed an approach called expert assessment, which analyzes all available research and experience from published and unpublished scientific studies. Combining expertise from public health, atmospheric science and economics, the researchers identified the types of disease and economic damage arising from Utah’s air pollution and then quantified their impact.

Co-authors included Thom Carter, executive director of the Utah Clean Air Partnership, and Logan Mitchell, a research professor at the University of Utah.

“Utahns understand that air pollution imposes large hidden costs on our communities which is why it’s consistently ranked as a top concern,” said Mitchell, an atmospheric scientist. “Thankfully, innovation has made clean energy technologies cost competitive on the market, without even considering those hidden costs. The coming energy transition will mean being good stewards of the environment will also protect our economy.”

Besides eating away at Utah residents’ life expectancy, air pollution also takes a bite out of their pocketbooks.

The researchers assigned economic losses to a range between $750 million and $3.3 billion, mostly stemming from health care expenses, crop damage and lost earning potential, in addition to indirect costs such as loss of tourism, decreased growth and regulatory burdens.

These losses pale in comparison to the $10 million the Utah Legislature appropriated this year toward programs to reduce pollution, suggesting such expenditures could represent a huge return on investment.

The researchers applied their findings to the goals outlined in the Utah Roadmap to Clean Air, released this year by the U.'s Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute. If the state meets the roadmap’s modest pollution reduction targets, Utah would save $500 million per year by 2030 and $1.1 billion per year by 2050, according to the study.

“The payoff of reducing pollution would be huge in economic terms and the benefits would be incalculable in terms of human life and health,” said senior author Ben Abbott, a BYU professor of ecology. “It’s a question of choice. Are we going to settle for incremental progress in air quality or take advantage of this immense opportunity to improve the health of our communities and remove this enormous drag on our economy?”

The Gardner roadmap offered more than 30 recommendations, which the study ranked in terms of their impact. The most effective measures are increasing energy efficiency of vehicles and buildings, promoting awareness, removing subsidies for nonrenewable energy, such as coal and natural gas, requiring industry to pay for the right to pollute, and expanding alternative transportation, such as cycling and public transit. Each of these initiatives could result in double-digit decreases in air pollution, although no single measure could solve the state’s air quality problems, the study found.

“In our efforts to clear the air there are no perfect answers, but there are practical solutions,” Carter said. “When looking at how poor air quality impacts our region, it is important to know that we are making progress and that each person, family, organization, and community can find ways to reduce emissions and improve our quality of life.”