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Mountain West cities are heavily polluted by smog, particles from wildfire smoke, report finds

A wide-angled view of downtown Salt Lake City, Utah, blanketed in wildfire smoke, creating a hazy view of the city.
Courtesy of Utah Fire Info
Wildfire smoke hangs over downtown Salt Lake City, Utah, on Aug. 6, 2021.

A new report from the American Lung Association shows cities across the Western U.S. have some of the most polluted air in the country. But that’s not the case everywhere in the Mountain West.

More than a third of all Americans, or 131 million people, are living in cities with unhealthy levels of air pollution. That’s according to the American Lung Association’s latest “State of the Air” report, an annual “report card” of air quality nationwide.

Spikes in deadly particle pollution are the most severe they’ve been in the organization’s 25-year history of producing the report, which uses pollution data compiled by the Environmental Protection Agency.

“Climate change is causing more dangerous air pollution,” Harold Wimmer, president and CEO of the American Lung Association, said in a press release. “Every day that there are unhealthy levels of ozone or particle pollution means that someone – a child, grandparent, uncle or mother – struggles to breathe. We must do more to ensure everyone has clean air.”

The “State of the Air’ measures three types of pollution: short-term particles, like wildfire smoke; year-round particles, like pollution from industrial plants; and ground-level ozone pollution, or smog.

In the Mountain West, several cities were among the 25 most polluted in at least one pollution category. Las Vegas and Reno ranked in all three categories.

“What's really killing us is the fires,” said Matthew Strickland, an environmental epidemiologist at the University of Nevada, Reno. “And so there's real concerns about everything from respiratory disease to cardiovascular disease to actually a wide range of potential health impacts, like mortality.”

Notably, a few Mountain West cities have some of the nation’s cleanest air in the year-round particle pollution category. That includes Casper, Wyoming (2nd), Cheyenne, Wyoming (6th), Colorado Springs (8th), St. George, Utah (9th), and Grand Junction, Colo. (12th).

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, KUNC in Colorado and KANW in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Kaleb is an award-winning journalist and KUNR’s Mountain West News Bureau reporter. His reporting covers issues related to the environment, wildlife and water in Nevada and the region.

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