New Study: Elevated Air Toxics on Utah’s Wasatch Front

Robin Azer |
Blanket of Smog Smothering Salt Lake City Credit: Jude Tibway
Blanket of Smog Smothering Salt Lake City – Credit: Jude Tibway

Warning: Breathe at Your Own Risk

Just how bad is the smog that permeates the air on Utah’s Wasatch Front? It’s killer. A newly released study from Utah’s Division of Air Quality (DAQ) has detected worrisome levels of several hazardous air pollutants. The specific air toxics include lead particles, formaldehyde and the solvent methylene chloride among others, all known to pose serious health risks at elevated levels.

Although these potentially cancer-causing culprits have exceeded the threshold of acceptable levels, the study is not all doom and gloom. In fact, Alan Matheson, executive director of the Utah Department of Environmental Quality, is quick to point out he did not see “anything that causes real concern.”

“We feel an obligation to give people information that is meaningful,” he said. “We don’t want to create an unnecessary panic, but we don’t want to downplay things either.” 

Wait … cancer risk? Back up. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) uses thresholds, based on statistical probabilities, where exposure to certain concentrations of hazardous air pollutants may result in cancer in one out of a million people. Generally speaking, the risk in Utah is low. This study shows show the air quality varies from one area of Utah to the next, with those on the Wasatch Front at the epicenter of foul air. Case in point, a study released by the EPA last December put the cancer risk due to harmful air pollutants for Salt Lake County residents at 43 out of every one million. That’s about on par with residents of Los Angeles.

Utah Pollution
Utah Pollution


Not specifically mentioned in this study, an important role in air quality are atmospheric inversions. In winter, inversions in Utah can last from a few days to a week. The longer an inversion continues, the more build up of pollutants, causing dangerously high concentrations of particle mater that would otherwise be able to disperse freely in the air.

Pollutants Trapped
Pollutants Trapped Under Blanket of Warm Air

According to Bryce Bird, the director of the DAQ, there are widespread air quality issues that will require additional investigation to pinpoint the precise source of these pollutants.

“We’re doing better every year,” said Bird, “but we still have a pretty crude picture of air quality and environmental health.”

The good news? Benzene, a pollutant associated with leukemia, has dropped almost 70 percent in the past decade, largely due to the use of cleaner motor fuels. Stay tuned for follow up studies. And hopefully more good news.

Bird’s Eye View: An aerial perspective of the impacted Wasatch Front with the beloved resorts of Utah beyond.

Utah Resorts on the Wasatch Range
Utah Resorts on the Wasatch Range – Credit:

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