Utah is among the top cities for polluted air – especially in the winter time during inversions where the pollution is trapped by high pressure weather systems that don’t move – sometimes for weeks at a time.
They cited scientific studies showing that heart attacks and strokes are linked to air pollution; that methyl mercury pollution is blamed for declining wildlife; that ozone pollution may cause faster aging; and that air pollution could cause genetic changes that will be passed on from generation to generation.
Such concerns prompted them “to be activists for our patients,” said Dr. Brian Moench, a Salt Lake anesthesiologist.
“Current air-pollution levels along the Wasatch Front constitute a health crisis,” he said. If the increasing levels of pollution aren’t checked, in 20 years a full-blown catastrophe could happen, he said.
Because of population growth, motor vehicle traffic — the source of 65 percent of air pollution — could double in 20 years, he said. With climate changes, more droughts could be expected, also increasing ozone pollution, he added.
Four new coal-fired power plants are on the drawing boards for the Beehive State, according to Moench; they are among 150 such facilities planned across America. The plants release mercury pollution, and there is no way to capture the vapor, he added.
Mercury is deposited on the ground and into water. When bacteria transform it, the material becomes dangerous methyl mercury. That accumulates up the food chain, increasing many times, he said, and poses a danger. It is particularly serious for babies, the most vulnerable members of society.
“More electricity from coal would simply be a full frontal assault on public health,” Moench said.
In terms of health and other impacts, he added, air pollution costs Utah people at least $4 billion annually.
The danger from air pollution extends beyond Salt Lake City and Provo, according to Dr. Richard Kanner of the University of Utah School of Medicine, whose speciality is the respiratory system. “It’s more than the Wasatch Front,” he said.
“We know that Cache County has a problem.” And problems like Cache County’s high particulate levels might show up elsewhere in Utah if the state had monitors in many locations, he said.
The very young and old are at most risk, along with “patients who have heart and lung disease,” Kanner said.
Citing a Harvard study involving six cities and PM10 particulate pollution, he added, “They didn’t find a level below which it was safe.”
The panel recommends that Utah:
• Impose a moratorium on new coal-fired power plants and retrofits existing plants with new air pollution control technology.
• Reduce the speed limit along the Wasatch Front to 55 mph on bad air days.
• Expand mass transit throughout the Wasatch Front, offering it free to the public.
• “Reduce Utah’s air pollutants by 20 percent through numerous strategies such as assessing auto taxes based on a car’s M.P.G..”
• Make people more aware of air pollution’s impacts, for example by adding an air-pollution course to the school curriculum.
• Pay special attention when issuing warnings about air pollution to note the danger that pollution can pose to the unborn so pregnant women can reduce their exposure.
• Ask that school buses not idle in school yards while waiting for students. “The engine should be shut off to decrease children’s exposure to diesel exhaust.”
• Encourage school districts to use buses that run on alternative fuels.
As air pollution worsens, said Dr. Scott N. Hurst of LDS Hospital, “we’ll see a further rise in people suffering from heart and lung disease.”