LOGAN—With a dense smog covering Cache Valley, many residents are concerned about the health effects of air pollution—the worst air pollution in the United States in recent weeks, according to federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
Specifically, much of northern Utah is buried under smoggy inversions that hold particulate matter (PM 2.5) in freezing fog trapped at the bottom of bowls made of surrounding mountains. Cache Valley, along with parts of Davis, Utah and Salt Lake counties, have exceeded the EPA maximum 35 micrograms of tiny particles in the air—from vehicle emissions, livestock, home heating, fireplaces and industry—more than a dozen times so far this winter, the EPA reports.
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Cache County and Utah County have vied for the unenviable title of the very worst particulate levels in the nation over the past weeks, and at least another week of ugly air is expected. Dr. Robert Gillies, director of the Utah Climate Center at Utah State University, says anything greater than 50 micrograms of pollution is considered unhealthy. Utah Climate Center data shows that Cache Valley pollution levels reached 120 micrograms last week, while Utah County reached levels of 147 micrograms— more than four times the maximum level set by the EPA—just a few days ago.
Many wonder when Cache County officials will to do something about it. For months, the Cache County Council has discussed options to put a dent in air pollution while resisting implementation of emissions testing, which many local residents consider invasive government meddling.
But after the EPA rejected a Cache County proposal for a vehicle sticker regime in an effort to reduce emissions, the County Council is now aimed at implementing a countywide vehicle emissions testing program like that in place on the Wasatch Front. Cache County has resisted the state and EPA’s approved emissions program, but a threatened $50,000/day fine changed officials’ minds.
The Council discussed emissions testing again last week, and may adopt the emissions testing plan as soon as Feb. 12, says County Executive Lynn Lemon. “If not, then at the Feb. 26 meeting,” he said, but “it’s not going to fix the problem—that’s the hard part.”
Emissions testing on cars and trucks could reduce pollutants by as much as 6 percent, he said, but that’s not enough to clear the air. “It’ll do something, it’ll improve some.”
Gillies says physicians and environmental regulators dispute the health effects of breathing the bad air.
“A lot of physicians attest to the fact that the foul air is forcing the young, the old and the sick to essentially smoke cigarettes,” Gillies said. “Physicians say it’s akin to smoking, but that assertion by physicians is disputed by the regulators.”
Gillies said medical studies have shown that air pollution can play a role in strokes, heart attacks, congestive heart failure and even infant mortality.
But Dr. James Davis of the USU Student Wellness Center said that while there are similarities between breathing the polluted air and smoking cigarettes, the key is in the concentration.
“The solution to pollution is dilution,” Davis said. “It’s a concentration issue with cigarettes. Both can cause you to cough, or be a little short of breath, but you’re talking about a dense concentration inhaled directly from the cigarette, as opposed to something that’s been dispersed quite a bit.”
Lemon says that in order to clean up the air, residents should stay home and not drive on red air days—that would be 100 percent more effective than the emissions testing for vehicles, he said.
Meanwhile, while the air pollution has been worse, the number of respiratory-related cases among students has increased also.
In 2011, the Student Wellness Center had 280 respiratory-related cases, compared to 313 in 2012. Davis says there has been a slight increase in January this year.
Given this year’s severe inversions and high pollution levels, growing numbers of health problems reported, and the lack of other options, Lemon and the County Council have little choice but to adopt vehicle emissions testing. Despite being named worst air in the country, however, Lemon says that overall Cache Valley air is not as bad as elsewhere in the state and country.
“We have episodic cases where that [high PM 2.5 levels] happens,” Lemon said, “but we don’t have the worst air in the nation when you look at the total package. If you look at the air over a long period of time, we have the episodic cases where we have an inversion and we have bad air, but overall, our air is much better than the Wasatch Front.”
Once the vehicle emissions testing ordinance is approved, Lemon said public hearings will be held. He says the ordinance will probably go into effect by December 2013.