For residents of Salt Lake City, news of the air quality issues plaguing the Wasatch Front are old hat. Nevertheless, a new study released by Utah’s Division of Air Quality (DAQ) suggests that the problem has continued to worsen. The study, which examined 86 of over 180 chemicals the EPA classifies as “hazardous air pollutants,” highlighted four major areas of concern, including concentrations of airborne lead particles, as well as rising levels of carcinogenic methylene chloride, formaldehyde, and acetaldehyde.
As a statistical probability, it is estimated that approximately 45 denizens of SLC County will contract cancer as a direct result of these pollutants. It is also likely that many times this number will experience respiratory difficulties such as asthma due to long-term exposure.
The news is not all bad, however, and glimmers of hope have penetrated this ghastly, floating mask. Firstly, the concentrations of some pollutants such as benzene, a known carcinogen suspected to cause leukemia, have dropped significantly (70% in the case of benzene).
Secondly, it is important not to overestimate the relative risk, says Alan Matheson, director of Utah’s Department of Environmental Quality. Alan does not see “anything that causes real concern,” and states that “We feel an obligation to give people information that is meaningful. We don’t want to create an unnecessary panic, but we don’t want to downplay things either.” For comparison, Los Angeles County is at about the same risk (both 43 cancers per million) from air hazards, with some local areas at over 110 per million.
Below is a chart comparing the various counties in Utah with Manhattan:
(U.S. Census, EPA)
We can conclude that, although not dire, SLC is certainly underperforming in its duty to protect its citizens from dirty air. Unfortunately, experts and state leaders are puzzled by the increases in certain toxins, particularly methylene chloride. While it appears that a single source has been emitting the chemical since 2008, it is unclear where or what this source is.
The DAQ has applied for funding to further research and pinpoint possible sources of formaldehyde. Brian Moench, president of the Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment, believes that the severity of the issue has been downplayed and that more funding is a step in the right direction:
“The air toxics component of our community’s pollution problem does not get the attention it deserves, given the danger that these compounds represent to human health in causing cancer, impaired fetal development, and likely association with many chronic diseases. The findings prompt the call for more investigation, and we hope the Legislature will accept the need to fund follow-up studies.”
– Brian Moench
While it’s unclear what the future has in store for SLC, readers at Snowbrains can take action by using the efficient and timely public transportation when heading to and from the mountains. This may also help to quell the canyon’s infamous “red snake,” an ally of the devil and a smog contributor in the city.