Salt Lake’s ozone problem is worsening despite air cleanup efforts, and Rep. Ben McAdams wants to know why

(Jeremy Harmon | The Salt Lake Tribune) Rep. Ben McAdams, D-Utah, talks about legislation he introduced to study ozone levels during a news conference in Salt Lake City on Friday, Oct. 11, 2019.

The Salt Lake City area has made strides in cleaning up the airborne particulate matter that cloaks the valley during winter inversions and has kept these pollution levels within federal limits in recent years.

At the same time, ozone, an invisible gas that irritates the lungs and airways, has continued to plague the region.

U.S. Rep. Ben McAdams is trying to figure out why and what to do about it.

“We’re scratching our heads to ask ourselves why ... ground-level ozone might be rising as we are doing a better job of limiting pollutants,” McAdams, D-Utah, said during a Friday news conference at the Huntsman Cancer Institute.

During the briefing, McAdams announced he’s sponsoring bipartisan legislation that would direct the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine to develop findings about the pollutant and craft recommendations for battling it.

Earlier this year, the American Thoracic Society released a report showing bad air contributes to more than 70 deaths annually in the Salt Lake area. Even relatively low amounts of inhaled ozone can cause chest pain, coughing, shortness of breath and throat irritation, said Daniel Mendoza, a University of Utah professor who studies atmospheric science and medicine.

“The closest analogy we can think of," Mendoza said, “is it’s essentially like a sunburn inside your lungs.”

McAdams, who sits on the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology, is sponsoring his legislation with Rep. Francis Rooney, a Florida Republican who serves on the same panel. The bill directs scientists to complete their work within two years and would give them access to up to $500,000 of federal funding already set aside for research, McAdams and his spokeswoman said.

Last month, the Environmental Protection Agency announced that the Salt Lake City area had kept its daily average for fine particulate matter within federal clean-air limits in 2016, 2017 and 2018. The state has been progressing toward those air quality standards with a plan that called for cleaner cars, pollution controls on homes and businesses, encouraging public transit and installing mitigation devices on smokestacks.

(Rick Egan | Tribune file photo) Sun and blue skies above the smog in the valley, Monday, December 11, 2017.

However, in December 2017, the EPA sent Gov. Gary Herbert a letter stating that several Utah counties — including Salt Lake and Davis counties — had violated the federal standard for ozone.

State Rep. Suzanne Harrison, who co-chairs the Clean Air Caucus in the Utah Legislature, said this problem isn’t as noticeable as particulates because ozone is an invisible gas and doesn’t “leave that awful taste in your mouth." But if ignored, it could continue to impact health and ultimately harm the Utah economy by discouraging employers and talented workers from moving to the area, she said in a Friday phone interview.

“People don’t want to come and live somewhere where their family is going to get sick from the air that they breathe,” said Harrison, a physician and Draper Democrat.

While experts aren’t exactly sure why ozone levels are rising, McAdams said overseas polluters are possible contributors. Climate change could be another factor, giving rise to warmer, drier summers that can foster wildfires, he noted.

Forest fires produce nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds that can produce ozone, the primary ingredient in smog, Mendoza said.

The pollutant also forms from car exhaust and building emissions, he said.

The haze of particulate matter that blankets the valley in the wintertime is easy to see, but ozone is primarily a summertime concern and is especially dangerous because it’s invisible, the professor added. And unlike fine particles, researchers suspect that ozone can infiltrate buildings and pollute people’s homes, Mendoza added.

Harrison noted that ozone issues get worse at higher elevations, so people can’t escape air pollution by heading to the mountains.

“It’s not something we can run away from," she said. “We need to tackle it through stronger policy.”

McAdams’ ozone study bill would ask scientists to create better air quality models for understanding ozone in the Salt Lake Valley and other parts of the nation that are experiencing heightened ozone levels. McAdams also wants research into how human-caused climate change might be contributing to the problem.

“Our kids, our older adults, our families and our environment will all benefit from this effort,” the first-term congressman said Friday. “Staying healthy is a key component to the great quality of life that we enjoy here on the Wasatch Front.”