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Salt Lake City now ranks among the worst U.S. cities for ozone and particulate pollution, a new report says.

The Salt Lake metro area, including Provo and Orem, was the 20th worst city for elevated concentrations of ozone, according to the American Lung Association's latest State of the Air Report, which ranks and grades cities and counties by the number of days their air is deemed "unhealthy" under standards set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Based on air quality readings between 2013 and 2015, the ozone ranking is the worst ever received by a Utah city in the report's history, said Michael Siler, a Midvale resident and Utah representative on a regional board for the American Lung Association.

There were no Utah cities in the national top 25 for ozone last year. Given the effects of ozone exposure, particularly on young people, Siler said he didn't understand why more Utahns aren't alarmed about rising levels of the pollutant.

"I don't know why people aren't just beside themselves about the air quality," he said. "Public policy makers must either think that we are bulletproof in Utah — that we are not going to be impacted by ozone or particulate matter — or that the science is bogus, or that the measurements aren't accurate."

The Salt Lake metropolitan area also ranked seventh nationally for spikes of particulate pollution, reflecting the valley's wintry inversion episodes. Logan ranked eighth. The two cities ranked sixth and seventh, respectively, in the 2016 report.

But that slightly improved ranking on particulates did not reflect better air quality, said Janice Nolen, one of the authors of the State of the Air report.

Air quality in the Salt Lake metro area — and throughout Utah — actually got worse, Nolen said, but other urban areas such as Reno experienced historically bad air quality during the 2013-2015 period. Worse air elsewhere in the nation caused Salt Lake to move down the list.

"The big question is, 'Did Utah do worse?' and that is the case," Nolen said. But she added that she is "hearing a lot of good discussion in Utah about recognizing the problem and dealing with it."

Small particulate pollution, known to scientists as PM2.5, is thought to cause damage to the heart, lungs and vascular system when inhaled. The particles are so small they can penetrate deep into the lungs and may enter the bloodstream, causing asthma, heart attacks, strokes, and possibly low birth weight in infants.

The EPA has proposed classifying several areas along the Wasatch Front as serious nonattainment areas due to recurring episodes that violate the EPA's PM2.5 standards. That designation could force the state to develop new plans for curbing pollution.

Ozone, meanwhile, forms when pollutants emitted by cars and other sources react with sunlight. It essentially burns the lungs when inhaled, causing potentially irreversible damage that may lead to or exacerbate conditions such as asthma.

Children and teens are more likely to suffer lifelong health consequences if exposed to highly concentrated ozone, because the effects of ozone tend to accumulate with each exposure.

Though state officials maintain that Utah's air quality is gradually improving, Bryce Bird, director of the state Division of Air Quality, acknowledged that ozone concentrations have been gradually increasing since 2007. Bird attributed the trend to pollutants from other regions blowing into Utah, and to weather- and geographic-related phenomena.

State officials have proposed three ozone nonattainment areas in Utah, but the EPA may be reconsidering the new standard that triggered that recommendation.

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Most polluted cities

(small particles, short-term)

1 • Bakersfield, CA

2 • Visalia-Porterville-Hanford, CA

3 • Fresno-Madera, CA

4 • Modesto-Merced, CA

5 • Fairbanks, AK

6 • San Jose-San Francisco-Oakland, CA

7 • Salt Lake City-Orem-Provo, UT

8 • Logan, UT-ID

9 • Los Angeles-Long Beach, CA

10 • Reno-Carson City-Fernley, NV

Most polluted cities (ozone)

1 • Los Angeles-Long Beach, CA


20 • Salt Lake City-Orem-Provo, UT