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My view: Utah's air quality important for economics

By Vivian Lee

For the Deseret News

Published: Wednesday, Feb. 19 2014 12:00 a.m. MST

Utah’s air quality issue isn’t one of health alone. As business leaders, we must advocate for an atmosphere that attracts and holds on to the talent we need to ensure our successful future.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

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It’s no secret that the University of Utah Health Sciences is an attractive place for top-tier physicians and researchers who want a challenging career in a work environment committed to improving health care and advancing scientific discovery.

University of Utah Health Care provides important health care for the people of Utah and the region through our accessible primary care and extensive specialty services, such as the Huntsman Cancer Institute and the John Moran Eye Institute. The university is also a major training ground for most of Utah's physicians, nurses, pharmacists, therapists and other health-care professionals. Faculty members from University of Utah Health Sciences conduct world-class medical and basic-science research and generate more than $230 million a year in grant money.

To maintain our ability to deliver on all of these fronts, recruiting and retaining candidates to be a part of our standout team is critical. Too often we hit an unfortunate roadblock: Potential employees take one look at the cloud of pollution lingering above the Salt Lake Valley and decide to chase a job offer in a city with cleaner air instead. Three years ago I experienced this firsthand when I relocated to Utah. I had planned to bring three NYU faculty members with me as part of my research team. To my dismay, one of them declined the opportunity to leave New York City, citing serious concerns about local air quality in Salt Lake City.

As a CEO, I know I’m not alone. Many other Utah business leaders frequently report about the challenges they face convincing companies to relocate to our wonderful state. Concerns about air quality are a common obstacle. Recruiting issues aside, poor air quality can lead to a host of other problems, including increased sick days, decreased productivity and a more important problem: poorer health, including increased risk of asthma, cardiovascular disease, dementia and even adverse effects on the babies of pregnant women. These health issues have an economic impact that is difficult to measure but is all too real.

At the University of Utah, we believe innovative strategies for improving our air quality can best be developed with scientists, engineers, economists and policy experts working collaboratively. Last year we launched a new initiative, the University of Utah Program for Air Quality, Health and Society, which explores all facets of air pollution, including its generation, health effects, societal implications and most importantly, its reduction.

Some of the studies supported by the program include: the development of a personal gas chromatograph for tracking pollutant exposure and an in-depth research project on the effects of prenatal exposure to wintertime inversion. Many of the grants build cross-disciplinary partnerships and allow investigators to incorporate air quality into their existing research programs at the University of Utah. The program will be seeking additional revenue, including donations from like-minded corporate partners.

With a student, faculty and staff population larger than some cities, like Cedar city, we also encourage our community to do what they can to help alleviate inversion through car-pooling, use of mass transportation, walking and biking, and other simple steps to curb emissions. Utah’s air quality issue isn’t one of health alone. As business leaders, we must advocate for an atmosphere that attracts and holds on to the talent we need to ensure our successful future.

On a clear day, the beauty of the Wasatch Valley is unmatched. With more of them, we could be unstoppable.

Vivian S. Lee is senior vice president for University of Utah Health Sciences, dean of the University of Utah School of Medicine and CEO of University of Utah Health Care.

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