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Air pollution costs Utahns billions annually and shortens life expectancy by two years

New study reveals the cost of air pollution for Utahns’ health and pocketbooks

Air pollution has been a problem in Utah since before the territory was officially recognized as a state. The mountain valleys of this high elevation region are particularly vulnerable to the buildup of air pollution from vehicles, household heating, and power production. Together, with high per-capita energy use, this has resulted in periods of poor air quality. However, with so many types of pollution and regional conditions, determining the overall effects of air pollution on Utah’s health and economy has been a major challenge. A study published on November 18, in the journal Atmosphere does just that.

A team of 23 Utah-based researchers used an expert assessment approach, which combines all available research and experience from published and unpublished scientific studies. Combining expertise from public health, atmospheric science, and economics, the researchers assessed what types of disease and economic harm stem from Utah’s air pollution.

The research team estimates that air pollution in Utah causes between 2,500 and 8,000 premature deaths each year, decreasing Utahn's median life expectancy by 1.1 to 3.6 years. This substantial health burden is caused by many illnesses and conditions that most people might not associate with air pollution. For example, exposure to particulates and other pollutants increases heart and lung diseases, including congestive heart failure, heart attack, pneumonia, COPD, and asthma. These conditions account for 62% of the pollution impact on health, according to this study. The remaining 38% of health effects are associated with stroke, cancer, reproductive harm to mothers and children, mental illness, behavioral dysfunction, immune disease, autism, and other conditions—all exacerbated by exposure to dirty air.

On the economic side, the researchers estimate that the direct and indirect costs of air pollution cost Utahns $1.9 billion annually. This economic damage results from direct effects such as healthcare expenses, damage to crops, and lost earning potential, in addition to indirect costs such as loss of tourism, decreased growth, and regulatory burdens.

“It was a real eye-opener to see quantitative estimates of how serious the health and economic costs of air pollution are for the people of Utah,” said Isabella Errigo, lead author and graduate student at BYU's College of Life Sciences. “The consequences of dirty air can seem very abstract until you read medical research connecting the quality of our environment to our personal health.”

Even though the estimates of cost in this study are on the low end of national estimates, which range up to $9 billion a year for Utah, they are still much higher than figures commonly discussed in the legislature. For example, approximately $10 million was appropriated to clean Utah’s air this year, representing only 0.1% to 0.5% of air pollution costs.

The mismatch between the size of the problem and the proposed solutions emphasizes one of the study's central findings: cleaning the air could have immense health and economic benefits for Utah. The authors combined their estimates of cost with the air pollution goals from the recent Utah Roadmap to Clean Air. If Utah achieves the roadmap’s pollution reduction targets, Utah will save $500 million per year by 2030 and $1.1 billion per year by 2050.

“The payoff of reducing pollution would be huge in economic terms, and the benefits would be incalculable in terms of human life and health,” said Ben Abbott, senior author and professor of BYU plant and wildlife sciences. “It’s a question of choice. Are we going to settle for incremental progress in air quality or take advantage of this immense opportunity to improve the health of our communities and remove this enormous drag on our economy?”

The research team ranked more than 30 recommendations on the best ways to reduce the amount of air pollution in Utah. Actions at the top of the list included: increasing efficiency of vehicles and buildings, investing in awareness, removing subsidies for nonrenewable energy, requiring payment for pollution, and expanding alternative transportation. They estimated that each of these interventions could result in double-digit decreases in air pollution. The researchers suggested that changes at the state level and community level as the most effective and tractable.

The researchers cautioned that no single change would achieve the desired improvement in air quality alone. “We need long-term implementation of proven pollution control measures," Errigo said. "It’s going to take commitment from multiple groups at the city to state levels to clean up our air and prepare for future growth.”

This studies findings are directly in line with the recommendations of the Utah Road Map to Clean Air. What is new is the quantitative estimates of the health and economic costs. The researchers hope these estimates provide additional context for state legislators and concerned citizens who want to enact positive change.

“In our efforts to clear the air, there are no perfect answers, but there are practical solutions,” said Thom Carter, Executive Director of the Utah Clean Air Partnership (UCAIR) and co-author on the study. “When looking at how poor air quality impacts our region, it is important to know that we are making progress and that each person, family, organization, and community can find ways to reduce emissions and improve our quality of life.”

Read the full peer-reviewed study.

Other co-authors include Daniel Mendoza, Kerry Kelly, Andrew Freeman and Heather Holmes from the U; Sayedeh Sara Sayedi, Jeffrey Glenn, John D. Beard, Samuel Bratsman, Robert A. Chaney, Mitchell Greenhalgh, James D. Johnston, Leslie Lange and Audrey Stacey from BYU; Peter D. Howe, Randal Martin and Trang Tran from Utah State University; Andrew Follett from Yale Law School and Derrek Wilson from the University of Colorado, Boulder Law School.