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Report Highlights The West’s Air Quality Challenges

Plumes of smoke from wildfires spread across the West in this image from August 2018.
Plumes of smoke from wildfires spread across the West in this image from August 2018.

About one-third of Americans live in areas that regularly have unhealthy levels of air pollution, according to a new analysis out this week from Environment America, an organization of state-based environmental advocacy groups throughout the country.

The study found that in 2018, about 108 million Americans lived in areas that experienced more than 100 days of unhealthy air.

“Thirty-eight urban areas and rural counties, which are home to more than 21 million people, experienced more than 100 days of ozone pollution in 2018,” the report states. “Such frequent ozone pollution affected people living in communities in California, New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, Colorado and Wyoming.”

Among metropolitan areas, the report ranked Denver-Aurora-Lakewood No. 10 in the number of days in 2018 when half or more monitoring locations reported elevated levels of ozone and/or fine particulate matter.

Morgan Folger, a co-author of the report, said the transportation sector is the largest emitter of pollutants, but wildfires and weather are also playing bigger roles, especially in the West.

“It’s really the unfortunate reality for folks living out in the West, that both there’s a lot of sources of pollution, and a lot of the heat that traps that pollution in the atmosphere and keeps the air pollution elevated locally,” Folger said.

The group looked at how often more than half of the ozone and fine particulate air monitors in metropolitan areas and rural counties measured harmful amounts of air pollution. The West, as a whole, saw significantly higher rates of air pollution than other areas.

“We do know that a lot of places out West have been experiencing severe wildfires, which contribute to particulate matter pollution,” Folger said. “And there are also Americans driving more and more miles.”

Another study out this month found a correlation between an increase in exposure to air pollution to an increase in cardiac issues. The report suggests that current air regulations don’t go far enough.

Of the 72 metro areas and rural counties measured in the Mountain West, only six had fewer than 30 days of unhealthy air, and nearly half of the region experienced more than 90 days of harmful air pollution.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUER in Salt Lake City, KUNR in Nevada, the O’Connor Center For the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, and KRCC and KUNC in Colorado.

Copyright 2021 KUNR Public Radio. To see more, visit KUNR Public Radio.

Noah Glick is from the small town of Auburn, Indiana and comes to KUNR from the Bay Area, where he spent his post-college years learning to ride his bike up huge hills. He’s always had a love for radio, but his true passion for public radio began when he discovered KQED in San Francisco. Along with a drive to discover the truth and a degree in Journalism from Ball State University, he hopes to bring a fresh perspective to local news coverage.
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