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Nevada, New Mexico are on opposite ends of the air pollution spectrum, analysis finds

An overhead view of downtown Salt Lake City, Utah, as smog hangs over the city.
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A layer of smog blankets Salt Lake City, Utah. The state has the fifth-worst air pollution in the country, according to an analysis from U.S. News and World Report.

A new analysis of air pollution across the country reveals a wide range throughout the Mountain West.

U.S. News and World Report ranked all 50 states based on how polluted they are and the risk that pollution presents to public health.

The study found that Nevada has the nation’s second-worst air pollution. Not far behind is fifth-ranked Utah.

Matthew Strickland, an environmental epidemiologist at the University of Nevada, Reno, says mountainous areas like Reno and Salt Lake City see pollution increase in the summer and fall due to wildfire smoke. What’s more, in the wintertime, they are impacted by inversions.

“You have cold air with warm air above it,” Strickland explained. “And when that happens, the pollution that’s in the valley here, it doesn’t mix up into the atmosphere, and it stays down where we live and we breathe.”

Meanwhile, a handful of other Mountain West states have some of the nation’s cleanest air. New Mexico ranks as the fourth-least polluted state, followed by Wyoming (No. 5), Colorado (No. 9), Idaho (No. 10) and Montana (No. 15).

The rankings are based on 2019 data from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which measured the total toxic chemical pollution generated in each state and the long-term, chronic health effects, such as birth defects and cancer, posed to state residents.

The metrics considered emissions to air and water from manufacturing, mining and hazardous waste treatment. They didn’t, however, include pollution caused by transportation, agriculture or small facilities like dry cleaners.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Kaleb is an award-winning journalist and KUNR’s Mountain West News Bureau reporter. His reporting covers issues related to the environment, wildlife and water in Nevada and the region.
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