The Cleanest and the Dirtiest: C. Arden Pope on Why Utah is the Best and Worst Place to Study Air

Apr 30, 2013

This week is Air Quality Awareness Week. Today Jennifer Pemberton  takes us on a summarized visit to the Cache Valley Air Quality Summit in Logan to hear air pollution epidemiologist, Dr. C. Arden Pope tell the story of how we’ve cleaned up the air in the U.S. in the past 50 years and how much further we still have to go.

The worst case scenario for air pollution looks something like Donora, Pennsylvania in 1948, where a 4-day inversion sickened thousands and killed 20. Those were different times with different (non-existent) regulations, but at the Bear River Health Department-hosted Cache Valley Air Quality Summit in Logan last week, stories like this came up many times.

“In Denora, Pennsylvania, they ran out of coffins. Half of their doctors were sick. Half of the community had respiratory, cardiovascular symptoms. The concern of course was if there was an episode in a great big city, we’d have thousands of deaths. Then of course what happened in 1952 in London? A big city had a big inversion and there were thousands of deaths.”

That’s the voice of keynote speaker, Dr. C. Arden Pope, one of the world’s most widely cited and recognized experts on the health effects of air pollution.

Dr. Pope joined Utah physicians, researchers, and elected and appointed state officials to go over just about every aspect of air pollution and human health.

Amanda Smith who heads up the state’s Department of Environmental Quality said that air pollution is usually important to Utahns when it threatens their quality of life or changes the ways they can enjoy their state. And when we have highly visible air pollution events like during this past winter, it shoots to the top of our minds, which makes her job as a regulator very difficult.

“As a direct report to Governor Herbert, I’ve been made aware that my top priority in my position is air quality. To do that through regulatory process, and also to think of creative ways that we can work outside of the regulatory programs to help educate people and help create programs that will impact Utah’s air quality. That’s quite a large task.”

One of the reasons air pollution is so difficult to address in this state is that it’s really hard for us to point our fingers at ourselves. Dr. David Patton heads up the Utah Department of Health:

“Before we used to be able to remove a toxin from the environment and be able to address the issue immediately. Today we’re dealing with issues where toxins are largely generated by things we do in our daily living. And they are much more complicated than they’ve been in the past.”

It’s not as simple as shutting down a factory.

Dr. Pope used his keynote speech to walk through his career as an air pollution researcher, which started in 1989 with the closure of the Geneva Steel Mill for 13 months in Utah Valley. It was easy to document and analyze the changes in community health when the mill was shut down and when it reopened.

C. Arden Pope was the keynote speaker at the Cache Valley Air Quality Summit in Logan on April 25, 2013.
Credit Creative Commons

Arden Pope is a Professor of Economics at Brigham Young University, and his cross disciplinary research is in environmental economics and air pollution epidemiology. Utah is full of perfect natural laboratories like Utah Valley during the steel mill closure.

“We’re talking about putting a lid on our valley and taking it off... We have these natural exposure chambers in Cache Valley, Utah Valley, Salt Lake Valley, etc...So we have some of the cleanest air in the country when it’s clean and some of the dirtiest air in the country when it’s dirty.”

His research started out simple in the late 1980s and early 1990s with counting dead bodies and plotting those numbers over air pollution monitoring. The relationship in many studies was perfectly linear. Dr. Pope was then involved with the landmark Harvard Six Cities Study, which compared mortality and morbidity rates across six U.S. cities with varying levels of air pollution.

“We follow them up over time, what we see is that in the more polluted cities they’re dying more rapidly than in the cleaner cities.”

Dr. Pope says that in the 1990s, air quality was the environmental fight of the decade, and he mentioned that that fight probably doesn’t seem like it’s over in a place like Cache Valley. The result was the establishment of national PM2.5 pollution standards, and subsequent research and validation of those original findings until 2006 helped to continue to tighten those standards.

“It’s resulted in improving air quality. So, has reducing air pollution across the United States resulted in substantial and measurable improvements in human health?”

The answer after looking at life expectancy and air pollution in 211 counties and 51 cities in the U.S. is yes!

“In general on average the greater the reduction in air pollution, the greater the increase in life expectancy...One of the most important interventions that have occurred in the United States in terms of improving our life expectancy, was just improving the air we breathe.”

Dr. Pope is an economist after all. At the end of his address, he added in a cost benefit analysis of air pollution abatement and human health. He showed us some models of the cost of cleaning up our air to help visualize decisions like How much air pollution does it take to hurt someone? How much does it cost to clean up that much air pollution?

Maybe this will help our leaders at the County and State Health Departments and the Department of Environmental Quality, many of whom were in attendance, to create policies that are appealing and understandable to constituents. With his stylized curves and simplified explanations of statistical analysis, Dr. Pope makes it seem easy, but anyone who walked out the door of the conference center knows that it’s not.