SALT LAKE CITY — Cherise Udell is shocked by the levels of pollution in Utah’s air.
“I feel like I am locking my children in a windowless room full of chain smokers,” said Udell, the founder of Utah Moms for Clean Air. “I feel claustrophobic, I feel frustrated and I feel angry at our political leaders for not taking action on what Utahns consider to be one of the most important issues for Utah's future.”
On Saturday, Udell addressed a group of 30 activists in Salt Lake City to organize an initiative the group hopes will commit Utah lawmakers to addressing the problem.
The group is drafting a pledge that each lawmaker will be asked to sign. “We want it to be as generic as possible,” Udell said. “If you don’t support the pledge, you’re like one of those people who don’t love puppies. How can you not support clean air quality in Utah?”
The group's efforts follows a similar effort by a group of Utah doctors who say the state's lingering air pollution is a health hazard and they are seeking action from the governor and other public officials to solve the problem.
Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment, representing 100 doctors and medical professionals, delivered a petition to Gov. Gary Herbert's office last week urging a call for changes on bad air days, including lowering speed limits, making mass transit free and halting some industrial activities.
Utah’s bad air has put the state in a notorious spotlight, with cities from Logan to Provo repeatedly having the worst air in the country during peak temperature inversions during January. Utah has been featured on CBS, NBC and The Associated Press, for its temperature inversion and the subsequent bad air quality.
“It’s as if Utah’s dirty little secret has been let out of the bag,” Udell said. “It’s great that our government has created such an attractive environment that brings many here, but poor air quality can undo that.”
Air quality is a factor in recruiting business leaders and CEO's from other parts of the country, says Tom Love of Love Communications, who works in communications and advertising.
"I remember talking with John Warnock, the founder of Adobe and owner of Omniture, who said that the number one challenge of bringing people to the state of Utah is the air quality issue," Love said.
In addition to the pledge, the Utah activists will be asking lawmakers to address the problem through legislative measures. Udell hopes that lawmakers will implement an emergency air quality plan. "Every city and state government has a plan for earthquakes, tornadoes and fires. Why not have a plan for those red air days?”
Utah is renowned for its family values, said Ingrid Griffee, a member of Utah Moms for Clean Air who attended the meeting and will help draft the pledge. "Addressing Utah’s air quality crisis is crucial to protecting families, the community and the vulnerable within: children, the elderly and the sick."
It’s the obligation of any leader in a community to protect their people, Griffee said. “I’d like to have the leaders think clearly about air quality, not just in terms of given legislation, but as an umbrella covering many themes they are writing about.”
Group members say they have been trying to do their part for cleaner air.
“I’ve been wanting to go to IKEA since Christmas, but I’ve put it off until the air is better,” Griffee said. “I have a favorite grocery store, but I visit my neighborhood grocer, which is closer.”
Griffee said she tries to avoid going out to eat and keeps her thermostat on 68, to avoid emitting fumes. “I just wear a sweater in the house and ask myself if we can’t just stay in for dinner tonight.”
Udell drives a hybrid car that emits nearly zero emissions and consciously shovels her walks when it snows, rather than using a diesel powered snow blower. “Whenever I see people shoveling, I thank them,” Udell said.
The group is also working to address poor air quality in school buildings, developing programs that give students options for physical activity indoors when the air outside is unhealthy, Udell said. They will be meeting with different school boards in upcoming weeks.