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Wildfire smoke contributes to poor air quality in Utah

A cloud of smoke against a blue sky above trees and a field of hay bales.
Frank Schulenburg
Pyrocumulus cloud produced by the Dixie Fire on July 22, 2021.

Wildfire smoke combined with Utah’s inversions complicates the state’s air quality issues. Because of the Wasatch Front landscape and how air moves across it, polluted air sometimes accumulates in Utah’s valleys and basins. A study published in Science Advances this month finds that smoke particulate pollution and seasonal ozone pollution coincided during last summer’s wildfire season to produce hazardous air quality conditions across many states.

Wildfire smoke falls in the category of PM2.5 pollution. Randal Martin, an Environmental Engineering professor at USU, said this category refers to all particles smaller than a certain size.

“So what that means is, it's not one particle size, it's really a spectrum of particle sizes, up to a maximum of two and a half microns in diameter. That's the average size that the average person can breathe into their deep lung tissue,” Martin said.

Dr. Brian Moench, President of Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment (UPHE), said wildfire smoke particles are often even smaller. This makes wildfire smoke one of the most toxic types of particulate pollution the average person is exposed to.

“It can penetrate cellular membranes and get right inside individual cells, including the nucleus of the cell. So, there, it can interfere with virtually every cellular function that exists,” Moench said.

Poor air quality impacts human health in many ways, not just in the form of respiratory issues, Moench said. Air pollution is associated with cardiovascular disease, inflammatory conditions, stillbirths and other poor pregnancy outcomes, brain dysfunction, and neurologic disease.

Martin said human health impacts are only part of the problem. Pets and livestock will have similar health issues, and crops may also suffer, leading to economic consequences.

“It is a problem. There's no doubt about it. But we're all part of the solution to it. You know we've all got to be aware of it, you got to be aware of what its effects are, and be aware [of] what we can do to minimize our impacts,” Martin said.

Caroline Long is a science reporter at UPR. She is curious about the natural world and passionate about communicating her findings with others. As a PhD student in Biology at Utah State University, she spends most of her time in the lab or at the coyote facility, studying social behavior. In her free time, she enjoys making art, listening to music, and hiking.