Which is the greatest threat to human health in Utah: indoor air pollution, groundwater contamination or mining wastes?

According to an Environmental Protection Agency study, indoor air pollution - which could include cancer-causing chemicals in the workplace - ranks highest among potential human health threats. At the same time, its control receives less funding than almost any other anti-pollution effort.In light of this study, should funding priorities be changed? Should environmental protection be rated as high as saving lives? Utahns will begin wrestling soon with such questions in a new program called Utah 100. The name honors the state's approaching centennial and symbolizes the fact that the new effort could help guide pollution-control efforts for the next century.

In public hearings and board sessions, residents will try to weigh the relative danger to health and the environment posed by different types of problems. From such considerations, they will work on priority lists to guide the direction of state agencies, particularly in such matters as how much money should be appropriated for different kinds of anti-pollution efforts.

Bruce Slater, planner for the Utah Division of Environmental Health, briefed the state's Solid and Hazardous Waste Committee about the Utah 100 effort Thursday in a meeting held in the Agriculture Building, 350 N. Redwood Road.Technically, this major new effort is called "Comparative Risk Assessment/Strategic Planning." Public meetings and hearings will be held, and the boards that guide the soon-to-be-established Utah Department of Environmental Quality will hear public comments.

Kenneth Alkema, who is to direct the new department, said formal hearings probably will be held in the fall. "I think right from the start we want to put a public process together, even as the data's gathered," he said. Some information could be collected as soon as late summer.

Slater said the Environmental Protection Agency began comparative risk evaluations about five years ago. In April 1990, a task force on comparative risk evaluation was assembled for this region of the EPA's fiefdom, called Region 8, based in Denver.

A science advisory board reviewed the team's efforts and made recommendations, including one that indicates the EPA should attach as much importance to reducing environmental risks as it does to reducing human health risks.

"I certainly concur with that," Slater said. "Protecting the environment's the ultimate preventive health program, as far as I'm concerned."

Slater said state officials have written a work plan for devising Utah's own risk evaluation system and applied for funding from EPA headquarters in Washington. First indications are that the state will win the grant.

He warned against writing risk evaluations that would result in "selling our environment short for economic gain." Protecting the environment helps to sustain the economy in the long run, according to Slater.

"We obviously want to have the public's input and the committees' input," he said. The committees are the groups, such as the Solid and Hazardous Waste Committee, that guide state policy; when the department is created, the committees will become broader-based boards.



Viewpoints on danger

EPA and state officials often view issues differently, and rating the risks to health and the environment is no exception, according to an EPA report.

In terms of health, EPA regional experts rate the worst dangers as indoor air pollution, indoor radioactive radon and pesticides. But program funding is by far the highest for cleaning up hazardous-waste sites, followed by control of municipal wastewater discharges.

Officials of all states in the region except Wyoming rank drinking-water and groundwater contamination as of higher concern than do EPA regional experts. Outdoor air pollution is a much bigger worry to Utah and Colorado officials than it is to state officials in the rest of the region.

EPA's Region 8 embraces Utah, Colorado, Wyoming, Montana and the Dakotas.