The editorial had a forceful, decisive tone:
“The people of Salt Lake City have made up their minds to eliminate smoke,” it said. “We’re going to have soon a carefully prepared smoke elimination law with plenty of teeth in it. We’re going to have a smoke elimination department with enough men to really enforce the law. We’re going to have — already have to a considerable extent — much voluntary cooperation in complying with that law.”
I cite this not just to illustrate how the Book of Ecclesiastes applies to Utah when it says, “there is no new thing under the sun,” but to show that the annual winter struggle to see the sun is nothing new.
The editorial was from the long-defunct Salt Lake Telegram, published in 1941. It was written in praise of then-judge Frank E. Moss, who apparently had decided to throw the metaphorical book at some poor smoke ordinance violator.
Moss went on to serve in the U.S. Senate, eventually to be defeated by a young Orrin Hatch, who delivered his farewell address on Wednesday — just to illustrate how close the distant past can seem.
The cycles of the past can seem familiar, too, and this subject definitely has a predictable schedule to it. Like swallows returning to Capistrano, the smoke, or smog, that crawls in on diseased cat’s feet tends to vex us with alarming regularity. As I look back on columns I’ve written on the subject, the first ones of each season all seem to date roughly to mid-December.
That’s when high-pressure systems begin trapping cold air, and all the pollution people create, in the valleys — hence, the “smoke” from that 1941 editorial. You may have noticed it recently.
But this year a couple of news stories put this annual event in a different perspective.
The first is that Gov. Gary Herbert wants to set aside $100 million in the state budget to help the air, much of which would bolster economic incentives for people to convert their wood burning stoves to natural gas.
He also cites statistics showing that things are getting better. He told the combined KSL/Deseret News editorial board that emissions statewide fell by 38 percent overall between 2002 and 2017, despite a 34 percent increase in the state’s population.
In 1941, many people still heated their homes with coal and wood. Given the population growth since then, it’s easy to imagine how bad inversions might be if we didn’t have tougher emissions standards on homes, cars and industries, a clean mass-transit system and rules against burning wood on the worst days.
But when the air is as thick as gray paste and your asthma acts up, telling you things have gotten better over the years is like telling someone whose house is on fire that they should be happy because the arson rate is down.
Utah’s problem comes in thick, sickening spurts, intermingled with long stretches of clean air. But those spurts are enough to threaten tourism, economic development and, most of all, health.
Which brings me to the other story. Researchers at the University of Utah analyzed data on women here who miscarried between 2007 and 2015 and concluded that pollution led to a 16 percent increase in the chances of losing a fetus during the first 20 weeks of pregnancy.
As Newsweek reported it, the researchers said their study had limitations, but the results ought to make pregnant women talk with their doctors and avoid exercising on inversion days. It also said a separate paper found a link between air pollution and the onset of dementia.
And so, 77 years after the Salt Lake Telegram announced we had made up our minds to eliminate smoke, here we are. We know a lot more about the bad things that come from it, but we still can’t seem to get rid of it.
The American Lung Association ranks the Salt Lake area eighth worst in the nation for 24-hour particle pollution and 18th for high ozone days.16 comments on this story
That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t keep trying to make things better. Government solutions can do some good, especially as they force cars and industries to burn cleaner.
But economic incentives are more likely to change personal behavior. An aggressive congestion-pricing plan for major roadways, where tolls rise and fall according to traffic flows, may be one way to force people into driving during non-peak times, or to take mass transit.
It’s worth a try, especially if it could make dreary winter days a little more breathable.