The Pollution that Unites Us

People living in Salt Lake City, the San Francisco Bay region and Wyoming’s Upper Green River Basin have had something in common recently: poor air quality.

In the Salt Lake City area, particulate pollution has spiked in recent days to levels that are unsafe for children, the elderly and other sensitive populations, and in some cases for everybody.

Areas in orange are experience pollution at levels that are unsafe for sensitive groups, while areas coded in red have such high levels of pollution that all people in the area may begin to experience its effects.

Residents of the San Francisco Bay area also have also been facing unsafe levels of particulate pollution, with areas north of the Golden Gate Bridge especially polluted. Pollution levels were high enough that children, older adults and other sensitive people were advised to limit outdoor activity.

In the southwest corner of Wyoming, ground-level ozone pollution has exceeded safe levels in the Upper Green River Basin.

Though we might think of air pollution as a summertime problem that affects Midwest and East Coast population centers, it’s a year-round issue that affects states across the country. In the winter, certain weather conditions can trap air in the lower levels of the atmosphere, allowing pollution such as particulate matter or ozone to accumulate.

Particulate matter consists of suspended particles so small that they can be inhaled and then even absorbed into the bloodstream. This pollution can cause premature death, decrease lung function, and trigger asthma attacks. Ground-level ozone pollution causes a range of respiratory problems, including throat irritation, reduced lung function, asthma and long-term lung damage.

The fact that such a range of communities face poor air quality is a reminder that the U.S. cannot afford to back off on efforts to reduce air pollution. To address the immediate spike in pollution, the Salt Lake City and San Francisco areas have banned burning wood, which creates particulate pollution. In Wyoming, regulators have told oil and gas operators to implement short-term pollution reduction measures to limit ozone precursors. In the long term, the nation needs strong vehicle emission standards, limits on pollution from power plants, and oversight of industrial sources to help curb health-threatening particulate matter and ozone pollution.