Air-quality officials said they did the informal study of rural, western Utah only to get a sense of what's normal. But the implications of what they found could be huge for Utah and much of the rural West if the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency proceeds with plans to tighten the limits for smog, as it is expected to do by the year's end.
"This new research from the Division of Air Quality shows that ozone isn't just an urban problem," said Erin Mendenhall of the health advocacy group, Breathe Utah. "Everywhere they look for ozone, they find it."
She noted the EPA is contemplating lowering the current 75 parts per billion acceptable limit, possibly to as low as 60 ppb, to better protect health.
Meanwhile, background ozone levels around the West are generally between 55 and 60 ppb, which means it's very possible that much of the region could be thrust into noncompliance, or "nonattainment" in EPA terms, if the limit gets lowered.
"Because dropping the ozone standards would push all of Utah into nonattainment," said Mendenhall, "it would bring more attention to how to address this very real problem."
Ozone is created when exhaust and other pollutants including volatile organic compounds and nitrogen oxides cook in the summer sun.
Breathing high ozone is often compared to having a sunburn on the lungs, harming healthy people as well as vulnerable ones, especially the very young, the very old and people with heart and lung trouble.
All 29 Utah counties currently meet the federal smog limits although the Wasatch Front counties, along with Box Elder and Tooele counties, are expected to be tagged as noncompliant if EPA tightens the limits even a little.
Plus, Uintah and Duchesne counties already have been put on notice that they will need an ozone reduction plan if their winter smog levels linked to the energy boom in that part of the state stay high for three years in a row.
While the Uinta Basin counties are working with industry and regulators to avert an EPA crackdown, others advocate for stricter smog standards in light of the growing scientific evidence about the harm it causes.
One is the American Lung Association, which recently estimated that 4 of every 10 Americans live in an area with unhealthy smog.
Air-quality officials have some ideas about what's boosting the smog in rural Utah. It could be blowing in from Las Vegas and Los Angeles. It could be elevated by sunlight bouncing off the Great Salt Lake. Those will be areas of inquiry in coming years.
But, whatever Utah's approach when all the data is in, no one's imagining simple solutions for rural smog. There are no smokestacks to regulate, and telling Las Vegas and Los Angeles to put a lid on it won't be easy.
Colleen Delany, a veteran air-quality scientist for the state, told the Air Quality Board recently she didn't see any obvious smog strategies for rural Utah.
Her conclusion? "It is going to be a complicated issue."
Monitoring over three summers at 27 locations in rural, mostly western Utah showed some surprising trends for a type of pollution we usually associate with big cities smog. Among the Utah Division of Air Quality's findings:
Scientists believe the Great Salt Lake influences pollution in a number of ways.
Sunshine reflected on the water might be boosting the pollution-making process the same way concrete does in the cities.
Badger Island on the Great Salt Lake had nearly twice as many high-smog days as Salt Lake City.
Los Angeles, Las Vegas and other cities to the west might be adding to the ozone pollution in rural Utah.
More study is planned at least for the next two years, and an ozone study for the state's eastern edge is also in the works.