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Paying for Poor Air: The Cost of Regional Air Pollution

By SLCgreen intern Kelbe Goupil

Air quality, air quality, air quality…will we ever stop talking about it? Until our air is consistently clean and no longer putting our health and economy at risk, probably not.

Bad air day in Salt Lake City

Talking about air pollution is important to us here at SLCgreen, not only because of how harmful it is to our health but also because of how expensive it is.

Let’s face it: bad air is damaging our economy. And not just in Utah. Air pollution in the U.S. costs the nation at least $131 billion in damages annually, including higher healthcare costs. Globally, the cost of pollution-related death, sickness, and welfare is $4.6 trillion per year, which is about 6.2% of the global economy.

Let’s talk about why that is and what can be done about it. 

Although the specific financial impacts can be difficult for experts to quantify, there is plenty of evidence that demonstrates pollution is costly in several ways.

Increased Healthcare Costs

Poor air quality is unhealthy for everyone exposed. Those most vulnerable are the elderly, children, and those with respiratory illness or who are otherwise health-compromised. However, several studies have highlighted more specific negative impacts of poor air, such as pregnancy loss, premature death, child asthma, and increased cases of pneumonia.

Hospitalizations, additional doctors’ visits, medications, and other treatment all place an extra burden on our healthcare system. Short-term health impacts, chronic disease, and premature death are associated with lost productivity, higher insurance premiums, and higher healthcare spending.

Experts estimate that asthma alone cost the United States $50.1 billion in direct medical costs and $5.9 billion in lost productivity in 2007.

Hindering Business Relocation

In a Utah Business article, Hanko Kiessner, CEO of Packsize International and co-founder of Leaders for Clean Air says: “Air pollution, I really believe, is the No. 1 limitation to economic growth along the Wasatch front…It limits [business leaders] to recruit talent to the state. We hear from other CEOs that they’re losing a certain number of employees to air pollution. They’re moving out of the state; they don’t want to expose their kids to this health hazard. The reverse happens with Millennials. They Google life quality in Utah, come up with air quality, then they don’t want to come here.”

Results of a 2018 survey by the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute revealed air quality as a common theme in factors considered by business leaders when deciding on where to locate or expand their business.

Former lieutenant governor and the current president and CEO of the Utah Hospital Association Greg Bell wrote in an op-ed earlier this year that 68% of our tech workers say the top reason they would leave the state is poor air quality. That’s pretty significant, considering that the tech industry in Utah accounts for 302,000 jobs and $20.1 billion in earnings.  

Statistics about impact of air quality on economic development.

Limiting Recreation Activities

According to Outdoor Industry Association, 72% of Utahns recreate outdoors each year – and that generates a lot of money and jobs! Unfortunately, poor air can impact our ability to enjoy outdoor activities and may discourage visitors from coming into our state to recreate.

In Utah Outdoor Recreation Generates: $12.3 Billion in Consumer Spending Annually, 110,000 Direct Jobs, $3.9 Billion in wages and salaries, and $737 Million in state and local tax revenue.
Source: Outdoor Industry Association

Causing Missed Days at Work and School

Last year, researchers at the University of Utah found that school absences can double the day after a red air day (when pollution is at a very unhealthy level). When kids miss school, parents often have to miss work to stay home. The result of absenteeism is often lost productivity and wages.

Electric Vehicles Can Improve our Health and our Economy

Utah is known for being a beautiful place to live with a strong economy. Keeping it that way is going to take an all-hands-on-deck approach: good policy, private funding, and individual action. We must reduce air pollution in order to strengthen our economy.

Transportation is a good place to start since about half of our local air pollution is from vehicles.

Yes, we should consider changes to how we are driving: driving less, carpooling, avoiding cold starts and idling, and relying more on public transportation or active transportation.

We also need to start thinking about what we are driving.

Mayor Biskupski, at a recent press conference unveiling city EV charging stations, said that:

“Electrifying transportation is one of the most meaningful ways we can tackle air quality problems in the Salt Lake Valley.”

As Salt Lake City works toward the goal of a net 100% renewable electricity portfolio by 2030, electric transportation becomes even cleaner. For those who are able, making the switch to electric can make a world of difference in reducing local air pollution. Indeed, According to a 2017 study, EVs can reduce local emissions up to 99%.

Salt Lake City loaner pool electric vehicle parked outside city and county building.
Salt Lake City has 224 clean vehicles as part of its fleet!

It’s difficult for many of us to imagine giving up solo trips to the office in the morning or running errands such as shopping or dropping kids off for activities via bikes or the bus. In that case, electric vehicles are one reasonable and important solution to our air quality problem and can help improve our economy.

As charging ranges continue to increase and battery production costs go down, EVs will reach parity with conventional vehicles. In time, purchasing an electric car will be accessible for more and more people.

Not to mention the lifetime cost savings associated with driving an EV! Charging an electric vehicle in Utah is the equivalent of paying 0.85 cents/gallon. And don’t forget about all the free charging stations located around the city, and the free parking for registered Green Vehicles.

Lower costs of operation and better health means more money in Utahn’s pockets – money that will circulate back into our economy.

Here at SLCGreen, we plan to continue to support improved EV infrastructure, a cleaner electric grid, and increased adoption of electric vehicles. We want our community to thrive, and we believe cleaner transportation is an important part of that goal.

To find an EV that’s right for you or discover EV incentives, visit

You can read more from SLCgreen about electric vehicles here!

Also, check out all of the work Salt Lake City is doing to tackle air quality.

5 Comments Post a comment
  1. air pollution is increasing day by day and government have to take strict action on that. air pollution contain toxic gases which harms human body .
    Thanks for writing this article so that people get aware of it!!!!!!!!!!

    July 28, 2019
  2. Dan #

    Not congestion pricing? Not bicycles and public transit?

    Electric vehicles are a distraction from real solutions.

    A huge slice of our pollution comes from cars. And we systemically subsidize cars.

    New technology isn’t the solution. This blog promotes a technophilic narcissistic delusion. We can’t be “green” and keep motoring to big box stores and fast food joints.

    August 29, 2019
    • Thanks for your comment. We respectfully disagree that EVs are a distraction, but do agree that they are only a part of a holistic plan to clear the air and reduce emissions from transportation (which comprises roughly half of our region’s emissions). Our City’s Transportation Division, as well as many other regional entities, are working on many of those other issues, including bicycles, transit, pedestrian-improvements, and more. As an example, the City recently passed its first Transit Master Plan and just funded several improvements to SLC-area bus lines to increase frequency of service.

      Many of the improvements coming to SLC-area roads through the Funding our Futures bond and sales tax revenue are also increasing infrastructure for bike lanes, pedestrian roadway improvements, and transit service and amenity improvements.

      We’d love to have all of the changes overnight, but good progress is happening. Thanks for reading!

      August 30, 2019

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  1. Clearing the air is easier than ever | slcGreen Blog
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