The paths to cleaner air in Utah are as varied and numerous as the thousands of emission sources spewing pollution into the skies over one of nation’s most beautiful states.
That was a central theme Wednesday evening at a town hall titled “Cleaning up Utah’s Air” in the Salt Lake City Main Library, where more than 100 concerned residents directed sometimes pointed questions to a panel of four experts.
On most people’s minds was how to reduce the emissions that lead to unhealthy concentrations of particulate pollution along the Wasatch Front during winter-time inversions.
“There are no silver bullets. It is nibbles at the apples and with enough nibbles we’ll get there,” said Utah Division of Air Quality director Bryce Bird, a panelist at the town hall co-hosted by The Salt Lake Tribune and KCPW-FM, which broadcasted the event live.
Could the state’s chief air-quality regulator wield a magic wand, he said he would use it to inspire people to make emission-reducing changes in their lives that will set an example for others. He was referring to driving less and smarter, turning down thermostats, give up wood fires and other proven measures.
Many members of the audience, however, urged leaning on state policymakers and voting for politicians who are more responsive to Utah’s air-quality crisis. They called for stronger measures, such as big public investments in transit and imposing strict emission-control requirements on polluting industries.
But not enough is yet known about the chemistry of Utah’s unique melange of air pollution to justify costly measures that may not produce benefits, according to panelist Kerry Kelly, a University of Utah chemical engineer.
“You need to understand your problem well before you make your investments,” said Kelly, a researcher who serves on the Utah Air Quality Board. Wednesday’s panel also featured pulmonologist Denitza Blagev and Shawn Teigen, a policy analyst with the Utah Foundation, and was moderated by the Tribune’s Jennifer Napier-Pearce.
Thanks to Utah’s mountainous topography and sometimes stagnant winter weather, the Salt Lake area experiences episodes of unhealthy air. In the past 20 years, air quality along the Wasatch Front has steadily improved. But that trend reversed last year when 33 days exceeded the federal 24-hour standard for fine particulates, according to DAQ.
Asked how people can protect their health during inversions, Blagev strongly advised against exercising outdoors, which hardly sits well with Salt Lake’s avid running and cycling communities.
“You are taking in deeper breaths, getting more exposure to the air pollution,” Blagev said. But she noted that such advice leads to a paradox, because it encourages people to drive on the very days people should leave their cars at home. Blagev also advised people with asthma and other respiratory conditions to don masks that filter at least 95 percent of the particulates.
Kelly noted that higher-elevation neighborhoods, such as The Avenues, and the benches above 1300 East, often have better air quality. During inversions, bad air reaches these areas later and leaves them sooner, according to recent research.
Getting a lot of attention at the town hall was wood fires, which bring comfort and cheer on a cold winter night but have a dark side. New research suggests wood accounts for a surprisingly large share of the Wasatch Front’s particulate pollution, suggesting large gains can come from broader fire restrictions.
“You can have all the members of your family drive around in all the vehicles you have for hours and it’s not as big a deal as a fire in your fireplace,” Teigen said. “You are putting a lot of harmful stuff into your house,” not to mention the rest of the neighborhood.
But tribal members in the audience said no-burn rules interfere with their religious ceremonies, which often use fire to illuminate gatherings.
“Now that the question has been raised, we can address how we can accommodate that,” Bird responded, noting that such ceremonies can perhaps be timed to avoid inversions. “If it can be put off a day or two, that can make a difference.”
Did you miss the town hall?
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