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Robert Weir: Utah prioritizes biggest polluters, not public health

Utahns should be outraged.

(Al Hartmann | The Salt Lake Tribune) View of the white hot haze in the valley looking west from the Utah Capitol Wednesday July 1. It is another mandatory action day to curb driving and idling and has been for almost two weeks with the high temperatures increasing ozone pollution.

The Tribune recently published an article about northern Utah’s growing ozone problem. The problem is so significant that the EPA is likely to reclassify our status as “serious,” up from “moderate” nonattainment. Unfortunately, the article left out some very important information that Utahns need in order to understand the health consequences of our persistently high ozone and to respond appropriately to the public policy changes that should follow.

To begin, the article inadequately depicted the extent of ozone exposure’s health consequences. Yes, ozone “sears” the lungs and is “linked to several respiratory illnesses,” but there is overwhelming medical research showing that ozone is indubitably harmful to all major organ systems. In fact, the physiological insult of ozone is akin to other types of pollution (i.e., systemic inflammation) which may trigger a cascade of diseases as extensive as the dreaded PM2.5. Specifically, ozone has been extensively linked to heart attacks and strokes, cancer, poor pregnancy outcomes (including one study that found it caused 8,000 stillbirths a year), Type 2 diabetes, dementia and premature death from a variety of causes. In other words, ozone is a pervasive public health hazard extending beyond just the lungs to the detriment of the entire body.

Second, the EPA’s ozone standard of 70 parts per billion (ppb) is not safe as the article implied. Medical research shows that there is no safe level of air pollution exposure whether it’s PM2.5, ozone, nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide or lead (all the air pollutants for which the EPA sets a standard). Every relevant medical society invariably calls for stricter standards. However, the EPA eventually succumbs to industry and political pressure and keeps those standards weaker, in some cases much weaker than the research demands.

A recent study published in a highly respected medical journal found that exposure to an increase of just 3 ppb ozone for 10 years was associated with as much deterioration of lung tissue and function as smoking a pack a day of cigarettes for 29 years. And 3 ppb is only a miniscule 4% of the 70 ppb standard the EPA has set as “safe.” In other words, 70 ppb is far too high a standard for public health.

Third, the article soft-pedaled what should be regarded as an ongoing conspiracy by Utah’s major industrial polluters, including the Utah Petroleum Agency (UPA), the Utah Mining Association (UMA), state leaders and the Division of Air Quality (UDAQ) to subject Utah residents to more ozone. An obscure section of the Clean Air Act, 179B, allows a community to appeal to EPA to apply a weaker ozone standard if it can show that it is being polluted from a foreign source. In 2021, Utah government leaders notoriously made history with the first appeal by a state to invoke this section in requesting the EPA not require that the state meet the national ozone standard. While UDAQ officially made the request, it was doing the bidding of UMA and UPA, and assisted by a letter from Gov. Spencer Cox, Senate President Stuart Adams and Speaker of the House Brad Wilson, that characterized EPA’s far too weak standards as, “overly rigid federal mandates.”

UDAQ was clearly being exploited by our politicians and biggest polluters, and apparently still is. The article explained that UDAQ is now taking another swing at the loophole, asking for a “prospective 179B exemption” because of anticipated foreign sources of ozone precursors in the future. Just like with their first attempt, this reveals the priorities of our state government. Every Utah resident should be asking, “Why is UDAQ working to protect our biggest polluters instead of the health and well-being of Utah’s residents?”

UDAQ’s previous pitch for “relief” from EPA standards was not without significant cost. UMA and UPA paid for high priced consultants, but a lot of UDAQ staff time (funded by Utah taxpayers) was also poured into the effort. It is a shame that no one seems to be able to fund the kind of investigative journalism that could unveil the amount of taxpayer money that was spent sabotaging public health and wellbeing.

In summary, Utahns should be outraged that not only is our state government not working to protect our public health in this matter, it is actively working to the benefit of our major polluters at the cost of public health. Ozone is not just toxic to the lungs but is deleterious to the whole body. There is no safe level of ozone, so 70 ppb should not be our goal. And finally, we should be placing the needs and health of our citizens before the greedy desires of those who benefit from exploitation of the environment and public health for personal gain.

Robert Weir

Robert Weir is double-board certified in neurology psychiatry and lives in Millcreek. He is an active member of Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment and is passionate about leaving the world a better place for our children and theirs.

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