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Ozone pollution is responsible for an estimated 13 deaths annually in the Salt Lake City area, according to a new report on the nationwide impacts of air pollution on human health.
The study, a joint effort of the American Thoracic Society and New York University's Marron Institute of Urban Management, looked at the health risks associated with long-term exposure to air pollutants and used local air data to quantify the impact of air quality in any given U.S. city. It did not consider the health impact of short-term, intense pollution events like those associated with northern Utah's wintertime inversions.
The report was also used to generate an interactive website, healthoftheair.org, to help residents visualize the impact of pollution on their communities.
"These numbers haven't been available in the past," said NYU professor Kevin Cromar, the lead author on the report.
A health department, he said, wouldn't have access to these numbers because death records don't indicate when pollution was a contributing factor to any given death.
"We're just giving the numbers," he said, "and hopefully that will be useful for every community as they try to make decisions moving forward."
Because Utah complies with the Environmental Protection Agency's standards for long-term exposure to fine particulate pollution, the report did not quantify health outcomes related to PM 2.5 on the Wasatch Front.
"It's really useful for the Salt Lake area to remember," Cromar said, "that even though there's so much discussion about particle pollution, ozone is important as well."
The report estimates elevated levels of ozone in the summer cause 13 deaths in Salt Lake City metropolitan area per year. For the state as a whole, ozone contributes to 38 deaths annually, according to the report, with rural areas generally faring better than more urban communities.
Those deaths could be avoided if ozone levels on the Wasatch Front did not exceed 60 parts per million, Cromar said. Although the EPA's standard for ambient ozone levels is currently set at 70 parts per billion, the American Thoracic Society believes a standard of 60 parts per billion would be more protective of human health. According to the report, dropping the standard to 60 parts per billion could save as many as 3,760 lives nationwide.
Robert Paine, a pulmonologist who heads his department at the University of Utah, said that although he too would prefer an air quality standard set at 60 parts per billion, 70 parts per billion is a good step toward the ultimate goal.
"It would take a lot of changes to get to 60 parts per billion, but that is a conversation we as a society need to have," he said. "Now, we've got to get to 70 parts per billion, because we're going to have trouble with that."
State officials have said two areas in Utah the Wasatch Front and the Uinta Basin will likely be listed this fall as violating the EPA's ozone standard.
The report also estimated 25 Salt Lake City-area residents experience a significant illness and may require hospitalization each year as a result of ozone exposure. Ozone also contributes to some 55,000 days of missed work, school or other activities in the area, according to the report.
Ozone can impact residents' daily life in many ways, Cromar said. It might curtail an athlete's desired level of physical activity, for example, or a child's severe asthma attack might prevent his parents from reporting to work.
The latter case, Cromar said, would have contributed two "impacted days" to the report's total.
Brian Moench, president of Utah Physicians for a Health Environment, said the new study seemed to grossly underestimate the potential health effects of ozone exposure. He pointed to another recent study, published earlier this year in the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine, which indicated that for every 10 parts per billion increase in ozone pollution, the number of deaths in that area increased by 2 percent. If there are about 12,000 deaths annually in Utah, Moench said, that means ozone contributes to 1,200 of them.
Paine noted that ozone affects some portions of the population more than others.
"When we talk about ozone, realize ozone isn't affecting the whole population evenly," he said. "There are susceptible individuals … people with heart disease, lung disease, kids with asthma. These more susceptible groups are the ones that are most important."
As a "lung doctor," Paine said he sees the effect air quality has on these at-risk persons on a day to day basis. People with chronic lung disease tend to have worse symptoms during periods of elevated pollution, he said, and ozone is particularly hard on people with asthma.
"It's a very real thing in my practice," he said.
And though the study's estimates were "reasonable" and accurate at a broad, population-based level, Paine said, it did not address abstract outcomes like cancer risk and premature birth.
Ozone is also problematic for athletes, Paine said. While most healthy individuals are fine to exercise outdoors in when ozone concentrations are moderate, some sensitive people experience coughing, wheezing or shortness of breath. These individuals shout try to stay indoors when ozone is elevated to avoid permanent lung damage, he said.