EPA Scientists Join Utah DEQ in PM2.5 Study

By Ann Brown and Karen Stewart, Guest Bloggers

DEQ invites guest bloggers to share their thoughts on issues that impact our environment. We appreciate their insights and the opportunity to broaden the conversation with others in the community.

Winter in Utah brings to mind crystal clear blue skies, snow-capped mountains, and a long ski season. But during the winter in Utah’s northern valleys, cold air inversions trap pollution emitted from multiple sources, including vehicles, industry, and agriculture. This allows for the mixing of atmospheric chemicals that leads to the formation of PM2.5, which is harmful to health at high levels.

The area’s more than two million residents experience levels that exceed air quality standards an average of 18 days during the winter. It has contributed to a 42 percent higher rate of emergency room visits for asthma and a 4.5 percent increase in the risk for coronary events like heart attacks.

Interior of the Twin Otter shows the air-monitoring equipment for measuring pollutant levels aloft to learn more about the chemical reactions that cause PM2.5.

The Twin Otter filled with air-quality monitoring equipment. Photo credit: Ale Franchin

Last month, EPA scientists packed up their research trailer with air monitoring instruments and traveled to Utah to assist in determining how to solve the area’s air pollution problem. They are participating in the Utah Winter Fine Particle Study, one of the most comprehensive efforts to date to analyze the area’s pollutants and determine the chemical processes in the atmosphere that lead to the formation of PM2.5. The study is being conducted by the Utah Department of Environmental Quality, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and other research organizations.

EPA and its partners in the study are taking daily measurements of air pollutants in three valleys using sophisticated ground-based instruments and remote sensing monitors. EPA scientists are providing their expertise in air quality measurement and have developed new and advanced technology to better monitor air pollutants. At the same time, NOAA’s research aircraft is flying over the region to measure air pollutants in the upper atmosphere.

The study will help to identify key emission sources and evaluate other factors—such as meteorology, geography, snow cover, and time of day—that may play a role in the formation of PM2.5. Once data is collected, Utah can use the information to determine the most effective strategies to reduce PM2.5 levels during the winter months and improve air quality for public health. The study is also expected to help other states with similar mountain valleys make decisions on how to protect air quality for their residents.

Researchers for the Winter PM2.5 study stand in front of the Twin Otter plane

UWFPS 2017 participants with the Twin Otter at the Salt Lake International Airport. Photo credit: Steve Brown

For more information about the Utah Winter Fine Particulate Study, visit the Utah Department of Environmental Quality and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) webpages.

Ann Brown and Karen Stewart

Ann Brown is the communications lead for EPA’s Air, Climate, and Energy Research Program. Karen Stewart is an Oak Ridge Associated University contractor with EPA’s National Exposure Research Laboratory.