The health of Utah’s seniors is negatively affected by air pollution. We see the dirty air in winter and summer and know it is bad, but perhaps have no idea just how bad it is for us. We often think senior concerns are all about issues like Medicare and Social Security, but that’s far from the truth. Seniors should be equally concerned about making sure our communities are actually livable and that means being able to breathe the air.
Air pollution has serious effects on seniors. Breathing polluted air increases respiratory disease, heart disease, cognitive decline, and longevity! On “bad air” days, warnings typically urge those with respiratory problems to stay inside. Because seniors are more likely than other age group to suffer from everything from bronchitis to emphysema and beyond, they are disproportionally affected. Our health is often delicate; the fine particles that air pollution forces deep into our lungs can literally be deadly. And these warnings to stay inside—often accompanied by pleas to limit driving-- increase our sense of isolation and dependence.
New research has highlighted another disturbing way that bad air quality harms seniors. Living in areas of high air pollution can lead to decreased cognitive function in older adults, according to a study of tens of thousands of seniors from the University of Southern California. Seniors living in areas with high levels of fine air particulate matter – like Utah -- scored poorer on function tests measuring everything from word recall to orientation skills.
Thus the Wasatch Front’s serious air pollution presents serious health problems for Utah’s seniors. As we’ve begun to educate ourselves about the factors that lead dangerous particulates and chemicals to build up in our valleys, we’ve grown to understand that the problem is complex. Complexity, however, doesn’t mean there aren’t possible solutions. A new proposal from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency addresses ways to reduce dirty emissions from automobiles, the number one cause of air pollution.
EPA’s proposed “Tier 3” standards would make gasoline cleaner, and also require new cars built after 2015 to have more robust pollution control systems and take advantage of cleaner gas. By lowering the sulfur content of gas by two-thirds, and by requiring new technologies such as catalytic converters which heat up immediately and thus minimize the “cold start” problem which puts so many pollutants in the air, Tier 3 promises to significantly reduce the emissions which leave tailpipes and dirty our air.
How significantly would this measure clean our air? Air would be 30 to 40% cleaner, according to EPA data, by 2030. When combined with already-passed rules requiring vehicles to significantly boost their miles per gallon, cars in a few decades will be 70 to 80% cleaner than now.
Those are big improvements – and they come at a modest cost. Cutting the sulfur in our gas will cost less than a penny per gallon. The new car improvements will cost roughly $125 to $150 per vehicle, less than one-half of 1% of a new car’s average price tag.
These investments could help the Wasatch Front’s air quality and help our seniors breathe more easily. . For more information about the Tier 3 proposal and how to file comments with the EPA, go to www.epa.gov/otaq/tier3.htm.