Pollution

What is the human cost of air pollution in Utah? More than you think

The American Lung Association is urging more rampant adoption of electric vehicles and an accelerated transition to an electrified power sector in a new report that underscores the public health benefits that would result state by state.

“The Zeroing in on Healthy Air” report released Wednesday uses numbers based on data from the US Environmental Protection Agency and modeling performed by a consultant the organization hired.

It points out the need to wean vehicle fleets off fossil fuel to avoid health repercussions and calls for the power sector to become all electric — sooner rather than later.

Nationally, in 2020, the passenger fleet made up 94% of the entire vehicle fleet and produced 1 million tons of ozone and particle-forming nitrogen oxide emissions, as well as 33,400 tons of fine particle pollution on an annual basis, according to the report.

The heavy-duty truck fleet makes up just 6% of the overall fleet but generates 59% of ozone and nitrogen oxides and 55% of fine particle pollution on an annual basis.

Nick Torres, advocacy director for the American Lung Association, said the report builds on research released two years ago that focused on electrifying the nation’s vehicle fleet.

“We wanted to expand it beyond the implementation of rolling out electric vehicles and also look at the impact of what it would look like for us to convert our electrical production to noncombustion, renewable electricity,” he said. “We really wanted to look at and highlight the potential public health benefits that would come from dramatically improving the air we breathe in a very tangible way.”

Under such a scenario by 2050, Utah could realize $5.7 billion in public health benefits, avoid 506 deaths directly linked to air pollution, eliminate 26,700 asthma attacks and reduce lost work days by 94,300.

Along the Wasatch Front, tailpipe emissions are responsible for about half the fine particulate pollution, or PM2.5, that dogs the area during winter inversions.

The report noted:

  • Nationally, 4 in 10 US residents, or 135 million people, live in communities with unhealthy levels of air pollution.
  • Air pollution disproportionately impacts people of color and low-income households.
  • People living near ports, highways, railroad yards and other transportation hubs are at greater risk from impacts of air pollution.

Torres said people who are at greater risk such as the young, the elderly or those with respiratory issues such as asthma look at air pollution differently — they have to.

“We know that air quality action days lead to additional visits to the emergency room and we know of the other problems among the most vulnerable populations. By taking these emissions off the table, we can see substantial impacts to the health of Utah residents,” he said.

Torres acknowledged that electric vehicles are pricey and not accessible for many residents, but said that is where all elected leaders can step in and provide incentives to make the transition easier.

“We’re calling on our elected leaders, our state, local and federal officials to really prioritize health equity in this process.”

In this last legislative session, Utah lawmakers agreed to spend $3 million on a rural electric vehicle charging effort. Additionally, they create a grid resilience committee and directed Utah air quality regulators to assess diesel emissions in a new inventory.

The state also adopted an electric vehicle master plan several years ago.

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