As I write this, I have imprisoned myself in my house, unwilling to go outside and breathe our smothering air pollution, and reluctant to go anywhere in my car because it will just add to the problem. A pollution headache has set in. Everyone around me is coughing and depressed. Many of my coworkers have called in sick. The TV weatherman just cheerily stated, "Don't worry, we'll get through this inversion. We always do."
Actually, he's wrong. Some of us won't make it through this. People literally die from strokes, heart attacks, fatal arrhythmias, pneumonia and aortic dissections all triggered by the pollution we're forced to breathe. My mother was one of them. She died of pneumonia during one of our typical winter inversions. Some of those who won't make it are our littlest ones. Infant mortality increases with air pollution. One of my colleagues just lost a 4-week-old child.
Particulate pollution at the level it is today causes community mortality rates to double. Even our average pollution levels increase mortality rates about 10-14 percent, according to the American Heart Association. That means between 1,000 and 2,000 Utahns die because of what we breathe.
Because of the strong link between air and water pollution and public health, Utah's energy policy becomes a defacto public health policy. The World Health Organization estimates that environmental contamination is responsible for 30 percent of all chronic disease, 80 percent of cancer and contributes to 80 percent of all diseases in all categories. All told, environmental degradation, air pollution especially, is easily our most serious public health menace. As long as everyone has to breathe, no one is spared its ill affects. Air pollution makes us all essentially part-time smokers: even children, pregnant mothers and human embryos. We know now that a person's lifelong health is compromised even if the only pollution they are ever exposed to is in their mother's womb.
None of this seems to be deterring Gov. Gary Herbert from making Utah the epicenter of a dirty energy future for the Western United States. On Jan. 10 and 11 at the Salt Palace, the governor will be hosting his annual Energy Summit for the state. It promises to be primarily a fossil fuel celebration including a how-to on exploiting our most extreme fossil fuels — tar sands, oil shale and "fracking" for oil and gas. It will pave the way for more diesel trucks to go to and from the refineries, even more black smoke up their smoke stacks and into your children's lungs.
The governor is fond of saying we need a "balanced" energy policy, we should take a "middle-of-the-road" approach, we can develop our fossil fuels "responsibly", and we must keep our energy "affordable." These terms are crafted to sound wise and comforting, evoking implied virtues of compromise, caution and conservatism.
How does one threaten our children's future "responsibly?" How does one look at our dwindling water supplies and conclude that the "balanced" thing to do is exhaust them in relentless drilling for oil? How does one look at our dying forests and conclude that ignoring the climate crisis is a "middle-of-the-road" approach? If the pollution from your "affordable energy" sacrifices some of us and impairs the lives of all of us, doesn't "affordable" also become unethical? Is my mother's death and that of thousands of others, an acceptable price to pay for a few more refinery, drilling and trucking jobs?
We can do better than this. Other states and other countries are building stronger, sustainable, clean energy economies right now without sacrificing their quality of life.
Brian Moench is the president of Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment and a member of the Union of Concerned Scientists.
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