It’s 2:30 am and my child is struggling to breathe. Coughs rack her body and a high pitched wheeze accompanies each breath in a tortured cadence. What started as the flu became croup and pneumonia, followed by bronchitis. Despite antibiotics and steroids, it lingered for weeks, ratting around in her chest. While she hasn’t coughed in days, I noticed yesterday she looked pale with dark circles under her eyes and a quiet fatigue that dogs her steps.
This is what it is to raise children in the second most toxic county in the United States. One bout of bronchitis can turn into an entire winter spent coughing, repeated chest x-rays and doctor’s office visits that produce little relief. And as a parent, the unrelenting sense of guilt that you may be condemning your child to a shorter life simply by living here.
Welcome to Salt Lake City, the beating, toxic heart of the second most polluted city in America.
Smog Lake City
When you think pollution, you probably don’t envision the quaint, orderly streets of Salt Lake City. You imagine Los Angeles, freeways clogged with cars and smog casting a gritty, orange haze across the urban sprawl. But Salt Lake City has a dirty little secret lurking just outside its squeaky-clean reputation as a nice place.
It’s called inversion.
Unlike good old-fashioned air pollution which usually worsens with the higher temperatures of summer, inversion happens in the winter. And it’s a tricky, complicated soup of weather patterns, atmospheric conditions, and geography that creates a perfect storm, forcing particulate pollution (referred to as PM 2.5 or PM for short) to concentrations that exceed national health standards.
In normal weather patterns, cool air circulates above, trapping warmer air near the surface. In Utah however, that weather pattern can become inverted. Cold air, fed by snowpack and a large, frozen lake that acts like a mirror, becomes trapped under warm air that acts as a lid. The valley also referred to as the Wasatch Front, is bowl-shaped with mountains on both sides that compound this effect, making it linger for days or sometimes weeks.
In January of 2017, Utah officially had the worst air in the nation. At one point, particulate levels rose to 59.5. For reference, red alert days, where all populations are advised to stay inside because the air is too dangerous to breathe, are triggered by a rating of 55.5 PM. Air is considered unhealthy for sensitive groups like children and the elderly at a much lower level of 35.5 PM.
In comparison, a 2015 study indicated Chinese cities had an average of 61 PM. That’s right. Utah can give China a run for their money when it comes to air pollution. Not exactly what Making America Great folks had in mind.
It is true that the Clean Air Act of 1970 has improved pollution in many major metropolitan areas across the United States by regulating automobiles and improving standards for energy efficiency and emissions across many different industries. Overall, Americans enjoy air that is 30% cleaner than a few decades ago, despite an increasing population and expanding urban sprawl. That’s a significant accomplishment.
But Salt Lake City’s rate of improvement has been slower than other cities. The state has failed to meet EPA air quality requirements for the better part of a decade. In 2009 and then again in 2016, environmentalists sued the EPA to enforce the standards aimed at clearing the haze in Southern Utah’s national parks. The state had rejected the EPA’s proposal and submitted a more modest solution that would have spared the state’s largest power provider, Rocky Mountain Power, from having to immediately update several coal-burning power plants.
The state’s proposal was rejected by the EPA in the summer of 2016 in favor of more aggressive regulation, but the election of Trump and the appointment of Pruitt has left the future of the agency in disarray. The EPA recently announced they would roll back standards on major contributors to air pollution, putting out advice to “ease the regulatory burden” for factories and power plants.
“This move drastically weakens protective limits on air pollutants like arsenic, lead, mercury and other toxins that cause cancer, brain damage, infertility, developmental problems and even death. And those harmed most would be nearby communities already suffering a legacy of pollution.”- John Walke, Director of the National Resources Defense Council
On the local level, the forecast doesn’t look much better. The GOP majority legislature has failed to invest in significant measures to improve air quality, cutting funding in 2016 for programs and opting not to update dysfunctional air quality monitoring equipment. In the 2017 legislative session, Utah’s lawmakers failed to pass measures that would have required emissions testing for diesel vehicles and refused to extend tax credits for electric cars. Further actions to shrink Utah’s national monuments and parks to allow for mining leases worsen an already bleak landscape for the state’s air quality.
And while national agencies and Republican state officials stand idly by twiddling their thumbs, thousands of Utahns fight to breathe through another winter.
The Kids Are Not Alright
Nearly 80% of Utah’s population crowds along the Wasatch Front, where the valley floor, once an ancient lake bed, rises to meet the mountains. Pollution pools across the valley and reaches levels that doctors believe contribute to community mortality.
Studies of healthcare providers and hospitals in the region show that ER visits increase 40% on days when the pollution is ranked as unhealthy. For those with chronic pulmonary disease, visits to the emergency room rise 90% during an inversion.
Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment, a group of health professionals established in 2007, estimates that between 1,000 to 2,000 people die in Utah yearly as a result of complications from poor air quality. This includes not only those with respiratory illnesses like asthma but also those with coronary heart disease for which poor air quality is a contributing factor.
The American Lung Association gives Utah a big fat F Grade for unhealthy levels of ozone and particulate pollution, citing 38 orange days where the air pollution poses a risk to sensitive populations like the elderly and children. Levels are worse on the west side of the city, where lower-income residents cluster, sandwiched between the freeway and the sources of both small and large industry pollution.
One of the first health complications you might expect from elevated pollution levels is asthma. Utah does have higher rates of asthma than the national average, but most medical professionals agree that asthma is more common throughout the United States in the last few decades. 1 in 11 Utahns has asthma, which is about 9% of the population.
An alarming 2017 study published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health points at pollution effects far more insidious than respiratory illness. Their research indicates a strong link between exposure to pollution and infant mortality.
Ozone exposure in the week prior to delivery was associated with a 13–22% increased stillbirth risk, while chronic exposure over the course of pregnancy increased risk by nearly 40%. PM2.5 exposure in the day prior to delivery also appeared to increase stillbirth risk in multi-pollutant models. Although the number of cases was small, maternal asthma modified stillbirth risk associated with chronic PM2.5 and CO exposures. If our findings were confirmed, they suggest that approximately 8000 stillbirths per year in the US could be attributable to O3 exposure during pregnancy.?—?Chronic and Acute Ozone Exposure in the Week Prior to Delivery Is Associated with the Risk of Stillbirth
Dr. Brian Moench, founder of the Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment, has been in private practice since 1981. In his work in intensive care and as an anesthesiologist, he’s seen over a thousand patients a year in the operating room. Dr. Moench remains gravely concerned about the health risks inversion along the Wasatch Front poses, especially for pregnant mothers.
“Even short-term exposure to pollution during pregnancy can have significant impacts. There is evidence that during vital windows of fetal and infant development, pollution can affect not only fetal viability, but alter chromosomes, and brain development, leading to a greater likelihood of developing heart disease, cancer, brain disorders, and even autism.”
While the infant mortality rate in Utah is not currently on the rise, there have been some odd occurrences. In 2015, a rash of infant deaths in Vernal, a Utah town known as a hub for mining and fracking operations, raised questions about pollution. The spike translated to infant mortality rates that were six times the normal rate and a prominent midwife in the area raised concerns that many of the deaths appeared to be clustered geographically near a heavily trafficked intersection.
In addition to infant mortality, one of the most overlooked effects of pollution is increased risk of heart disease and stroke. The World Health Organization declared pollution an environmental cause of cancer in 2013, and the scientific community has been expanding their understanding of the risks of pollution ever since.
“Exposure to pollutants poses far greater public health consequences than just respiratory illness. The effect on coronary artery disease and the impact on blood vessels that supply the brain that can lead to strokes are often underestimated. Exposure to pollution accelerates the aging process, causing a loss of elasticity in the arteries that contribute to higher blood pressure. The average person on the Wasatch Front probably loses about two years of their life expectancy from our air pollution. But new studies suggest that if a person dies due to an air pollution related cause, on average, they die ten years earlier than they would have otherwise.”?—?Dr. Brian Moench, Founder of Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment
When it comes to Utah’s dirty air, one thing is clear. It’s hazardous for your health. Here are a few things Dr. Moench recommends to reduce your personal risk of being exposed to air pollution.
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The Usual Suspects
When Utah earned the dubious distinction as one of the biggest producers of toxic chemicals in the country in 2017, there was a lot of finger wagging and excuses and very few solid answers. Where was all this junk in the air and water coming from?
The short answer is Kennecott and the Bingham Copper Mine, formerly the largest copper mine in the world. Their smelters and power plant make them the top contributor to chemicals leaked both into the water and emitted into the air. But beyond that rather basic answer, it gets rather complicated.
A recent energy summit conducted by Governor Hebert estimated that only 13% of pollutants along the Wasatch front are large industry related, with 29% coming from small industry sources like gas stations, dry cleaners, and commercial wood stoves. An overwhelming 48% of Salt Lake City’s pollution comes from mobile sources such as cars, trucks, and buses. There have been various studies conducted over the years and by different organizations, but they all point towards motor vehicles as the largest source of particulates in the air.
Once you’ve determined that motor vehicles are the crux of the problem, we just begin to scratch the surface of the issue. Because sulfur impedes the ability of a car’s emission system to work properly, compounding the effects of pollution. Sulfur emissions, commonly from oil refineries, turn out to be a sneaky culprit of pollution.
Utah does have five small refineries, but they all fall under EPA rules that allow for a more generous time frame to meet air quality standards. Silver Eagle, the smallest of these refineries, already meets EPA standards for sulfur emissions. Chevron has promised their refinery will do so by 2019. Tesoro, which owns the largest of the refineries, has been a bit more lazze-faire. They claim they’ll meet EPA standards and reduce their sulfur emissions by two-thirds sometime in the next 3–5 years.
Hopefully before my daughter’s bronchial tubes are permanently scarred by inflammation. But you know. Economic impacts. Wouldn’t want anyone to lose their job. Yada Yada.
Next up are small industry sources, which have a larger impact on air quality and are entirely within the jurisdiction of state and local authorities. Gas stations, dry cleaners, wood and gas stoves in small businesses or restaurants all contribute to what is referred to as small industry pollution. And yet, under a GOP-controlled government, they are allowed to operate virtually unchecked. On red air days, wood burning is restricted, and fines are imposed, but enforcement is sporadic or non-existent. Lackadaisical zoning laws and a lack of urban planning have placed many of these sources of small industry pollution directly in the path of residential areas and schools.
And finally, we come to the inconvenient truth. Our addiction to fossil fuels isn’t just killing us. It’s killing our kids.
While Salt Lake City is very much an urban area, it still functions as part of a rural state where distances are vast and public transit non-existent. We do have a mass transit system that includes buses and more recently TRAX, which runs trains along a few key commuter routes and from locations across the valley to downtown hubs. But service is sporadic and depending on where you live, not feasible as a primary mode of transportation.
Let’s give you an example. Say I wanted to take my daughter to school using mass transit. If I drive our car from where I live to her charter school in the Avenues, it’s a drive of 18 miles. It takes me 30 minutes and costs $2.57 in gas.
Because the closest TRAX station to me is five miles away and not served by a direct bus route, Ride UTA suggests this is the fastest route to my daughter’s school.
That’s right. I’d need to walk 1.2 miles, ride a bus for 50 minutes, walk half a mile, transfer to another bus for ten minutes, and then walk another half mile to the school. It would require my six-year-old daughter and I to walk 1.5 miles, spend 64 minutes in transit, and cost $2.50.
I’m beginning to see why only 25% of commuters to Salt Lake City use mass transit. And it’s not just me. Having a family with kids is the norm in Utah, with large suburban sprawls that increase commute time. Even carpooling is problematic. Studies show that in the Beehive state, at least 1 in 5 people in carpool lanes are single occupancy vehicles in violation of the law. Utah also keeps gas taxes low and has no plans to raise them in 2018.
Utah Republicans cleave to their SUVs and trucks and their vehement anti-regulation rhetoric. And they have no plans to give them up anytime soon, no matter how chewy the air gets.
There’s Got To Be A Better Way
While the sources of Utah’s pollution are hotly debated, there are a few solutions that can be widely agreed upon. The problem thus far has been getting officials at any level to take decisive action.
Most experts agree a universal first step to reducing air pollution is to focus on public policy that decreases our use of fossil fuels. That means not only discouraging the consumption of fossil fuels but investing in mass transit and in alternative fuels like solar and electric.
1% of cars in Utah are electric, but much of the Salt Lake Valley lacks basic infrastructure for charging these vehicles. There’s also still a higher price tag associated with electric vehicles, but the $7,500 federal tax credit remains in place despite GOP efforts to remove it from the most recent tax bill. Tax credits for solar, however, will phase out by 2022. Solar has been a major economic driver in Utah, which is ranked as one of the top ten solar producers in the nation. Rocky Mountain Power, however, has lobbied state lawmakers to raise rates on solar producers. And President Trump’s latest 30% tariff on solar panels won’t do the industry any favors.
As a solar company, we are devastated to learn Trump has imposed a 30% tariff on solar panels virtually killing the solar industry. Solar employs more people than coal and oil combined. today’s decision will cause the loss of roughly 23,000 American jobs this year.
Another obvious next step in reducing air pollution is to instate better small industry standards, stricter zoning laws, and better urban planning. Since wood smoke is believed to be a major contributor to pollution along the Wasatch Front, state-subsidized programs to assist those who use wood-burning devices as a primary heating method could have a significant effect.
And finally, Salt Lake City would do well to steal a chapter from Park City’s manual on addressing climate change. The ski resort now faces a forbidding forecast of zero snowpack and a temperature rise of 9 degrees by 2075. This would transform Park City to a climate similar to that of Salt Lake City, which is 3,000 feet lower in elevation. It’s estimated that from 2000–2010 lower levels of snowpack cost the ski industry over $1 billion.
In response to this dismal forecast, Park City has committed to a zero carbon footprint by 2032. It’s an investment that will not only improve quality of life but will ultimately save the city money. They’ve developed a plan to rely on solar and wind farms, renewable energy grids, electric city buses, and large swathes of undeveloped land.
Let’s just hope that by 2032, Smog Lake City’s pollution hasn’t crept into the canyons and stolen Park City’s forecast for a brighter future.
If all of the coughing doesn’t kick Utah’s GOP leadership in the feels, perhaps the jolt to their wallets will do the trick. In addition to the human costs, there are certainly economic consequences to ignoring air quality. In 2017, the state lost millions of dollars in revenue when the Outdoor Retailer’s Convention relocated after 22 years, citing Utah’s abuse of public lands and continued failure to address pollution. Business leaders throughout the state are raising the alarm, expressing concern about their ability to attract talent and recruit employees to a state with a reputation as a toxic environment.
Loosening EPA restrictions at the national level and the undermining of the Clean Air Act put communities like Salt Lake City in a precarious position. Some experts believe we could see some of the largest increases in air pollution in United States history, endangering American cities and setting us back decades in the fight against climate change.
As for me, I’ve been looking at property in Portland and daydreaming lately. Mostly about Portland’s food trucks, but also about how delicious it might be to take a bite of fresh air. And not to worry about whether my choice to live in Salt Lake City in the short term might cost my children their future.