Air pollution decreasing Utahns’ life spans according to study

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A layer of inversion blanketed the Salt Lake Valley on Dec. 16, 2013. Inversion occurs when a layer of warm air traps cold air and pollution in the valley. A recent study found that air pollution can shorten Utahans lives. (AP Photo/Steve Griffin)

Air pollution is taking years of off Utahns’ lives according to a report from BYU environmental science professor Ben Abbott and student Isabella Errigo.

According to the report, 75% of Utah residents are losing at least one year of life and 23% are looking at losing five or more years.

“The findings were quite surprising,” Abbott said. “There’s a common misconception that only sensitive groups are affected, but air quality is affecting everyone.” 

The report states that because air pollution is not directly observable, it’s rarely recorded as a cause of death. However, it contributes to a variety of acute and chronic health problems that result in death including heart attack, cancer, neurological disorders and miscarriage.

“We know poor air quality kills people the same way we know smoking kills people,” Errigo said. “If the air got better, we’re not saying you’d have zero negative health issues, but we know poor air quality exacerbates health issues that are already there and progresses diseases and illnesses quicker.”

Not only are people suffering more and dying sooner, they’re dying poorer. According to the report, air pollution costs Utah 1.8 billion in both direct and indirect costs. 

Abbott explained that the study is an expert assessment comprised of research and input from over 20 researchers of public health, medicine, atmospheric science and economics.

“For the last year, out of all of the available studies, national and international, no one has been able to provide these numbers,” Abbott said.

Errigo is hopeful that helping people understand how air quality affects them economically and physically will motivate them to improve air quality. 

“It has to be a mass movement,” she said. “This won’t be solved by just one or two people taking the train.”

According to the report, 100,000 to 300,000 people in the U.S are dying from air pollution each year. By comparison, the National Safety Council reports that 40,000 people died in traffic accidents in 2018 across the U.S.

A number of clean air initiatives exists to try and prevent the negative effects of air pollution, such the Clean the Darn Air policy proposal or Envision Utah’s clean air recommendations. Yoram Bauman, one of the founders of Clean the Darn Air, said that requiring a carbon tax could help improve the air quality.

“It’s my view as an economist that if you’re going to tackle air problems, you need to provide financial incentives,” Bauman said. “It’s not going to happen by magic or encouraging everyone not to pollute the air.”

“One point to get across is no one intervention or change is going to solve the problem,” Abbott said. “It will be dozens, maybe even hundreds of different measures that work together to solve the problem.”

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