SALT LAKE CITY — An email came to me from a woman who watched the conversation between director of the Hinckley Institute of Politics and host Jason Perry and myself on "The Hinckley Report," which aired Friday night on KUED.
"After hearing you say on "The Hinckley Report" that Utah’s air is getting better, I am wondering what data you are using to determine that. Please let me know the source. I’m somewhat of a nerd who finds data/statistics interesting."
Here's what we know:
1. Utah has a serious air pollution problem.
2. There is life-or-death urgency to solve the problem.
3. Utah's and the nation's air quality is, in fact, getting better.
4. Utahns have a choice to take personal responsibility for it or ignore it.
Perry, whose show airs again Sunday morning at 11, does a good job bringing forth issues each week from the world of politics and this week was no exception. He led the panel I shared with Lindsey Whitehurst of the Associated Press and Univision’s Lester Rojas through topics that included the special legislative session creating new law for medical marijuana and the governor's newly released budget.
It was the discussion on the budget and the state's $1.3 billion surplus that led to the exploration on what's next for Utah in the fight against air pollution. Can we finally find a breath of fresh air?
The governor is recommending $100 million be dedicated to improving air quality, looking for incentives in places where we know it makes a difference, such as curtailing use of wood-burning stoves. Beyond the much-needed financial support to fight air pollution, the Deseret News is trying to build awareness and motivation for change.
1. How serious is the problem? One need only look to this week's air quality index to understand the issue. Weather apps Saturday listed "unhealthy" air for sensitive groups, meaning children, the elderly and certainly those with asthma or other ailments.
The most unhealthy air was recorded from North Salt Lake south to Point of the Mountain along the Wasatch Front and over to Herriman. Utah County was faring better with "moderate" air quality. Many Deseret News readers live out of state, but we hear from them and they know well Utah has a temperature inversion season and we are at the beginning of it.
2. Why is it a life or death issue? Health professionals note that bad air contributes to significant health challenges and higher mortality. I've written before about the work of Deseret News reporters Amy Joi O'Donoghue and Erica Evans as they've chronicled the problems and put forth possible solutions.
In 2012 O'Donoghue wrote: "Three national studies earlier this year have brought greater urgency to the problem, revealing that even short-term exposure to levels of pollution considered "safe" by federal standards bring immediate risks of heart attack and stroke."
There are many studies and statistics that grab your attention but consider two highlighted by O'Donoghue's 2012 report: "A 10-year study in the Boston area that followed nearly 20,000 women ages 70 to 81 found that those who breathed in dirtier air longer had a two-year head start in the decline of mental acuity."
The second point to consider, nearly one in 10 children and one in 12 adults are afflicted with asthma and in areas of Utah where air quality is the poorest, there are higher hospitalization rates for those sufferers.
3. So in the face of such statistics and studies, how is the air getting better? This gets to the heart of the email this week and here's the answer. In August we reported on anEPA report that noted the following national data: "Since 1990, eight-hour measurements of carbon monoxide have plunged by 77 percent, annual measurements of nitrogen dioxides diminished by 56 percent and eight-hour ozone levels are down by 22 percent."
In Utah, there has also been improvement as clean air standards have become more stringent in industry, in homes and for automobiles. And technological advances have perhaps brought about the most significant changes providing cleaner solutions to industrial production problems. Our coverage of the improvements can be read at Deseretnews.com.18 comments on this story
4. So that brings us to this question of what are the choices for us to make? The air is trending better, but still harmful and is causing great health hardship. My own observation is that personal engagement will make the greatest difference.
A story on motivation, written by Evans, noted that part of what's needed is convincing each of us that one person can make a difference. That means owning our own contribution to the problem or to the solution. It means making some change — any change — in personal behavior as a start.
The woman who emailed me is engaged enough to learn more. This is how change happens, one person at a time.