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Wildfire smoke and smog make air pollution a growing problem out West

Smoke drifts above a wildfire
Madelyn Beck
/
Mountain West News Bureau
Smoke drifts above a wildfire in Utah last summer.

The West is known for wide open spaces and big blue skies — but that hasn’t protected cities there from high levels of air pollution.

The American Lung Association’s new “State of the Air” report analyzed federally-detected air pollutants around the nation in 2018, 2019 and 2020. Of the 25 areas with the worst short-term particulate pollution, all but one were in the West.

That included areas around: Reno, Nevada; Salt Lake and Logan, Utah; and Coeur d'Alene and Boise, Idaho.

Wildfire smoke was a clear factor.

“This year, we see nine million more people in the United States impacted by deadly particle pollution, and a lot of that is caused by the increase in wildfires we’ve seen,” said Will Barrett, the association’s national senior director for clean air advocacy.

Barrett noted that federal regulations once helped clean up air pollution nationwide, but some areas are now headed back in the wrong direction.

“We’ve made a lot of progress in cleaning up the air across the United States under 50 years of the Clean Air Act, but now the impacts of climate change, we’re seeing the job of cleaning the air is becoming that much more difficult,” he said.

Some areas in the Mountain West also topped the national list for ozone (or smog) pollution. They include parts of the Front Range in Colorado, Salt Lake, Las Vegas, and Albuquerque.

“Traffic pollution, other sources of pollution, mix in the atmosphere on those hot, sunny days and form ozone, which can have a sunburn effect on your lungs,” Barrett said. “It’s a colorless, odorless gas that’s corrosive to our breathing tissues.”

Air pollution can lead to health problems ranging from sore throats to lung cancer to early death, depending on the amount and kind of pollutants. New research also suggests it can increase the risk of contracting COVID-19.

The Lung Association’s report found that those most affected by harmful air pollution were lower-income groups and communities of color.

“People of color were 61% more likely than white people to live in a county with a failing grade for at least one pollutant,” the report states. They also were 3.6 times as likely to live in a county with failing grades for three kinds of pollutants.

The Lung Association is advocating for "stronger standards" for air quality in the U.S. Barrett said while wildfire smoke can be hard to prevent, its effect can be compounded by preventable pollution already present in growing cities.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM 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

I'm the regional reporter with the Mountain West News Bureau at Boise State Public Radio.