Breathing in airborne pollutants is nothing new to residents of Utah County.

But Provo residents were breathing in the filthiest air in the nation on Dec. 29, according to airnow.gov, a website the Environmental Protection Agency uses to post daily air quality conditions around the nation.

Though Provo has not maintained that ranking since then, the website reports that it has consistently placed in the top five cities with the most polluted air.

James Westwater, chair of the Utah Valley Earth Forum, said the polluted air is typical this time of year because of inversion.

“When you get into the mountains, you have these bowls,” Westwater said, saying the lack of air circulation in the valley traps the pollution people are generating.

Though it can be difficult to pinpoint exactly why one city has dirtier air than another on any given day, Westwater cited Utah Department of Air Quality statistics as saying the single largest source of air pollution is from mobile sources such as trucks and cars, which can be hard for people to do without.

“This is America; we rely on the automobile,” said Tim Wagner, executive director of Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment.

Wagner also said the consequence of that reliance on cars is dirty air, and as people realize that maybe they will begin walking, carpooling or using public transit more often.

Wagner’s organization studies other people’s research on health effects of air pollution, and wants people to know there is more at stake with pollution than whether they have a good view of the mountains.

UPHE is currently in the process of scheduling presentations to educate people and medical professionals about the negative impact pollution can have on pregnant women and their unborn children.

But Wagner said that’s just the beginning of negative health effects pollution can cause.

“What that means in terms of health care and medicine practice, is we need to be more proactive in terms of what’s causing the problems instead of just treating the symptoms,” he said.

Though Utah County residents can take steps such as carpooling and not letting their cars idle, there is only so much an individual person can do.

Westwater said people need to elect leaders who will take action on the issue before substantial progress can be made toward cleaner air.

He also said the government can help by passing legislation to help make renewable energy sources more affordable, because money is a driving factor behind dependence on fossil fuels.

But for now, the overarching issue is most likely a high concentration of vehicles, Wagner said.

“There probably ought to be more research why Utah County consistently ranks higher than other parts of the state,” Wagner said. “Because in the end we are talking about the health of the residents of Utah County.”

For more information about Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment or Utah Valley Earth Forum, visit their respective websites at uphe.org and uvef.org

Katie England covers politics, county government and southern Utah County for the Daily Herald. She can be reached at 801-344-2599 or kengland@heraldextra.com.

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