A 2013 survey found that 78 percent of Utahns think our air is worse today than it was 20 years ago. While we certainly do seem to have a lot more bad air days lately, the number of official red air days isn’t because we have worse air, it’s because the government changed its definition of bad air. In 2009 the EPA became much stricter on how much pollution it says is too much. Consequently, we have more red air days even as actual pollution levels are falling. That’s right, Utah’s air quality has drastically improved over the last couple decades. It just doesn’t seem like it because of changing regulations and aggressive public awareness campaigns.
So why do we care what the EPA’s changing regulations say? First, because pollution is harmful and public awareness of its levels and its sources is a good thing. Second, and this may explain the recent rush of government and business proclamations about air quality, if Utah continues to run afoul of federal regulations then we face the prospect of losing all federal transportation funding. There will be no federal money for new freeways or light rail trains, or any other new transportation project we currently rely upon the federal government to fund.
But regardless of funding or artificially inflated red air days, there are real health risks associated with poor air quality. There are numerous studies linking certain particulates in the air to a multitude of breathing and other health problems. So as responsible citizens it behooves us to identify these pollutants and reduce them where possible. However as in most things, identifying problems is fairly simple, while the policy prescriptions are much less so.
First, what’s causing the pollution? Again, surveys show that what many of us believe to be the culprit has less of an impact than we think. When we see pollution we often envision big industry with their huge smokestacks. While the Wasatch Front does have some industry (Kennecott Utah Copper mine, refineries, etc.), these sources only make up about 10 percent of the air pollution.