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Kristin Murphy, Deseret News
Hundreds attend the Clean Air! No Excuses! rally in front of the state Capitol in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Jan. 31, 2015.
This is a public health crisis. We should never settle for an environment that is toxic. —Derek Kitchen

SALT LAKE CITY — Wood-burning neighbors took Jon and Carrie Marsh to purchase specialized filtering face masks for themselves and each of their three children.

"Wood-burning happens in neighborhoods. That's where the homes are and that's where we live," Carrie Marsh, of Bountiful, said. "It's in our house. It's in our clothes. There's really no escaping it."

The family has tried to educate their neighborhood about the harmful effects of burning wood for warmth, and a ban of burning on bad air days has curtailed some of the issue. Yet, "a few of them still do it," Jon Marsh said.

"I'm concerned about bad air, yes," he said. "For my health and my kids' health, there's nothing more important."

The Marshes joined hundreds of Utahns on Saturday to protest the state's poor air quality that is generally bad at this time of the year, though it has been only moderately bad this year with milder winter weather.

Rally organizer and president of the Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment, Dr. Brian Moench, said, however, that even one bad air day is too many.

"Air pollution is unhealthy, period, for everybody in any amount and the worse it gets, the more unhealthy it is," he said, encouraging those in attendance to pressure lawmakers into passing effective legislation.

"Our sentiment needs to turn into year-long action," said Carl Ingwell, founder of Utah Clean Air Now, who also spoke at Saturday's rally at the state Capitol.

Derek Kitchen, one of the plaintiffs in the case for legalizing gay marriage in Utah, said breathing clean air is a "human right."

"This is a public health crisis," he said, referring to the fact that schoolchildren can't play outdoors on bad air days and pregnant women are also encouraged to stay indoors. "We should never settle for an environment that is toxic."

"Do not underestimate the power of your voice," Kitchen told the ralliers. "We need stronger voices for a cause that is just."

Similar events promoting public advocacy for cleaner air in Utah were held in Moab, Logan and St. George on Saturday, though with fewer attendees than in Salt Lake City. It is the second year that throngs of citizens from across the Wasatch Front arrived on foot, bus and bikes, as well as some who drove, to encompass the state Capitol for the cause of clean air.

They wore face masks and carried signs, and chanted loudly for "clean air now."

Also in attendance were several lawmakers, including Rep. Angela Romero, D-Salt Lake City, who rode her bike to the event.

Eleven-year-old James Welt shouted and cheered with the crowd, holding his own banner that pleaded for cleaner air. He and his sixth grade classmates from Rowland Hall were part of the fray.

"We just moved here from Boston and it's just shocking how dirty the air is," said James' mom, Corrine Welt. Driving to school from their home in Emigration Canyon, Corrine Welt said her son knows when it's going to be a bad air day by the visible layer of smog that they live above.

Rep. Patrice Arent, D-Millcreek, said she's pushing for the Utah Legislature to grant funding for school districts to replace old buses, as well as for the state to provide better air quality monitoring and enforcement. She encouraged support for cleaner-burning, alternative-fuel vehicles and funds to replace old air monitoring equipment, but also for Utah to adopt its own environmental standards.

Every solution that Alicia Connell, a founder of Communities for Clean Air that is battling Stericycle in North Salt Lake, came up with, she said, was "stricter than EPA standards" and therefore not permissible in Utah.

"No wonder we've never been in compliance with the (federal) Clean Air Act," she said.

Rep. Becky Edwards, R-North Salt Lake, is backing legislation this year that she said would let the state, which has its own unique geographical issues that traps bad air in the valley, develop its own unique solutions.

"We, as Utahns are never the type to sit idly by," Edwards said. "We can solve our own problems in Utah."

Utah House Speaker Greg Hughes, R-Draper, said he's heard from many concerned citizens about Utah's poor air quality and he promised the group that lawmakers would "leave Utah better than we found it."

Email: wleonard@deseretnews.com, Twitter: wendyleonards