State of the Air: UTAH

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4-8% of all Utah deaths are attributable to air pollution (about 1000 premature deaths along the Wasatch Front annually)

Cities along the Wasatch Front and in Cache Valley are among the most polluted in the country for short-term particle pollution

Salt Lake, Provo and Logan consistently rank in the top ten U.S. cities for worst acute spikes in air pollution

Air pollution from vehicle emissions accounts for more than half of the air pollution along Utah’s Wasatch Front

Pollution in the form of Particulate Matter claims the lives of between 1,000 and 2,000 Utahns every year

The largest single source of air pollution in the urban Wasatch Front is Rio Tinto, emitting 10x more pollution overall than the next largest industrial source, the Chevron oil refinery

The combined Rio Tinto mining, power plant/tailings, and smelting operations release over 18,000 tons of air pollution per year. In addition, the mine by itself is the largest single source of particulate emissions (both PM10 and PM2.5) in the entire state



While the air on the majority of winter days is healthy, each year Utah’s valleys experience days when the concentration of Particulate Matter (PM), a mixture of extremely small dust, soot and chemical particles, is elevated.

Utah has exceeded the federal health standards for two classifications of PM:

  • PM10-which is 10 micrometers in diameter or less, about 1/7th the diameter of a human hair.
  • PM2.5-measures 2.5 micrometers or less.

Winter PM comes from human-related sources. PM is a mixture of extremely small dust and soot as well as particles that form in the atmosphere as secondary pollutants under stagnant winter conditions.  Secondary pollutants represent the majority of the PM observed on days that exceed the air quality standards. Soil, dust particles and certain metals are emitted directly into the air as PM by blowing dust from construction sites and agricultural activities, as well as combustion products from solid fuels such as fly ash (from power plants), carbon black (from automobiles and diesel engines) and soot (from fireplaces and wood stoves). Acids, heavy metals and reactive organic compounds can adhere to the PM and be deposited in the lungs.

Along the Wasatch Front, the effects of PM can be seen as the thick brownish haze trapped in the valleys during winter months.


The combination of PM pollution and certain weather patterns can create significant air quality problems. Surface inversions occur when warm air above cooler air acts like a lid, trapping the cooler air at the Earth’s surface. They normally weaken and disappear as the sun warms the surface during daylight hours, however, under certain meteorological conditions, such as a strong high pressure over the area, inversions can persist for days. As pollutants from vehicles, fireplaces, and industry are emitted into the air, the inversion traps these pollutants near the ground, leading to poor air quality.


Valley topography, low wintertime sun-angle, and snow covered ground also enhance the formation of inversions. Wasatch Front residents are accustomed to seeing periods of inversion during the winter months. Inversions typically linger until wind or a storm front comes through. The “typical” period is from a few days to a week, although there have occasionally been inversions which have lasted two to three weeks.


How is health impacted during times of high PM or inversions?

Both fine and coarse PM can accumulate in the respiratory system. Coarse PM can aggravate respiratory conditions such as asthma. Exposure to fine PM is associated with several serious health effects and people with existing heart or lunch disease–such as asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and congestive heart failure–are at increased risk of premature death or admission to hospitals or emergency rooms.


When exposed to PM, children and people with existing lung disease may not be able to breathe as deeply or vigorously as they normally would, and they may experience symptoms such as coughing and shortness of breath. PM can increase susceptibility to respiratory infections and can aggravate existing respiratory diseases, such as asthma and chronic bronchitis, causing more use of medication and more doctor visits. If you have questions please contact your health care provider.

During the winter months, the Utah Department of Environmental Quality operates its “Red Light, Green Light” program to advise residents about wood burning and pollution.

  • Under “Green” conditions, wood burning is allowed.
  • Under “Yellow” conditions, pollution is building and residents are asked to voluntarily not burn wood and limit driving.
  • Under “Red” conditions, pollution levels are unhealthy for sensitive groups and a mandatory no burn period goes into effect. Residents are also asked to reduce driving. The elderly, children or anyone with respiratory problems are advised to reduce prolonged or heavy exertion outdoors.



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Gary Herbert

Contact information:

  • Utah State Capitol Complex
    350 North State Street, Suite 200
    PO Box 142220
    Salt Lake City, Utah 84114-2220
  • Email: Contact form
  • Phone: (801) 538-1000
  • Twitter: @governorherbert

US Senate

Orrin Hatch

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  • 8402 Federal Building
    125 South State Street
    Salt Lake City, UT 84138
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  • Phone: (801) 524-4380
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Mike Lee

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  • Wallace F. Bennett Federal Building
    125 South State, Suite 4225
    Salt Lake City, UT 84138
  • Email: Contact form
  • Phone: (801) 524-5933
  • Twitter: @SenMikeLee

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US House of Representatives

Rob Bishop (District 1)

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Chris Stewart (District 2)

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Jason Chaffetz (District 3)

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Jim Matheson (District 4)

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Utah’s electricity generation by source, 2012:

  • Coal (78%)

  • Natural Gas (17%)

  • Hydroelectric (2%)

  • Other (3%)