Scott G Winteton, Deseret News
Air quality along the Wasatch front, Monday, Nov. 26, 2012.

Growing up we were all taught to thoroughly chew our food. I never thought we would have to thoroughly chew the air we breathe.

We look anticipatorily at a well-displayed table arrangement, a beautiful array of fruits and vegetables and a mouth-watering entrée. Dessert, the best, is saved for the grand triumphant finish.

With aerial pollution, it is like a dinner table strewn with dirt, grit, grease and grime. We sit down, tuck our napkin under our chins and begin to slurp up the smoke and fog. The organ of destination is not the digestive stomach but the air-exchanging lungs. These incredible instruments of life are connected with no barrier with the outside. We need life-giving oxygen for our internal biological combustion. Instead we suck in the used combusted fumes of everyone and everything else.

It is amazing how accepting humans can become to a dirty sky. It is like doing the prisoner torture experiment on ourselves. Remember the psychological test first conducted by professor Stanley Milgram of Yale during the 1960s?

He created a situation where one was the authority figure, a second was the subject and the third was a confederate of the experiment. They were told that the panel controlled the amount of electrical shock they would administer to another. Unknown to them, the dial went nowhere. Instead the confederates in the other room played sounds of the shock and reactions to the alleged pain. They were instructed to increase their screams as the subjects turned up the faked voltage.

The subjects kept turning up the power in spite of the screams. They were told it was “essential to continue” or “you must go on,” because they were given permission and encouragement to do so by the authority person. It didn’t matter that another human being was shouting out in imagined agony.

A shocking 67 percent continued to the final 450-volt jolt.

Now think about how many of us are in front of our car’s steering wheel like a dial on the experimental panel. We keep turning the wheel even though we know we are adding to the shock of a filthy sky. We follow the authoritative voices of inaction.

In contrast, the act of one makes a small difference. The unity of many individuals acting as one makes a huge difference. Just to start, .5 million cars need to stay in the garage every day for Utah to be clear.

For full disclosure, I am not speaking these words from the back seat on the last car in a light rail train. I add daily to the problem like fellow subjects twist the dial, injuring my own lungs.

In the experiment of Milgram, there was an authority figure encouraging the ascending action in spite of the calls to stop and even deadly silence.

The question is how much self-punishment will we continue to inflict on ourselves and everyone else who has to gnaw the air they breathe.

This is where leadership steps forward. For the good of the whole, our authority figures can encourage the 67 percent to turn down the juice.

Instead of growing the gray cloud, there are many good ideas to implement now. Not after our lungs are clogged with trash.

Make travel alternatives more affordable and the cool thing to do. Initiate more rigorous air standards now, not when our alveoli are overwhelmed with the particular material of industrialization. Use the power of the sun, wind and earth.

There is a health cost to bad air. Charge the producers to help pay for the increased asthma, hospitalizations and health burden. That means a higher price of fuel.

Blinding air-borne dirt is bad for business, productivity, tourism, reputation of the state and who knows the number of depressed residents. It is deadly for children and the aged. Sans the hose, this is a form of car exhaust suicide.

Our lungs chew up rubbish.

We should all be shocked.

Joseph Cramer, M.D., is a fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics, a practicing pediatrician for 30 years, and an adjunct professor of pediatrics at the University of Utah. He can be reached at [email protected].