The Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment made a presentation last week to the Utah Air Quality Board, adding a disconcerting new dimension to the debate over how the state will comply with federal air-pollution standards.
Achieving these standards could avert sanctions from the Environmental Protection Agency and shore up federal highway funds. But no one should be under the illusion that doing so will make our air "healthy." If your brother-in-law cuts his smoking to half a pack a day, that's a good thing, but he's still smoking.
Enforcing the current standards that we are violating is like ordering the state to join your brother-in-law in cutting back to half a pack. The standards are woefully inadequate, lagging behind the science, perhaps by a decade.
The EPA essentially functions as a community physician. If your personal doctor hasn't read a medical journal in 10 years, or has to appease hostile members of Congress by calculating the political implications of treating you, undoubtedly you'll be getting substandard care. So it is with the EPA's national pollution standards better than nothing, but a far cry from what is required for real public health protection.
Science is not malleable to our ideologies or the electoral process. Two and two equals four, whether you abhor government regulations or not. The polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons known as PAHs that you are inhaling right now are forming reactive epoxides that covalently bind with your chromosomes and impair their function, even if you are a state legislator who thinks that Utah is somehow immune from uncomfortable scientific realities.
Virtually every major medical organization in the country has been calling on the EPA to make national air quality standards stricter.
The panel of the nation's premier air pollution scientists who advise the EPA have been writing letters to the agency since 2006, condemning it for allowing politics to overwhelm science in setting those standards.
Echoing these organizations, the presentation by Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment before the Air Quality Board included hundreds of new medical studies demonstrating profound health effects, even with air quality well within the EPA's standards.
The state board has only one physician, the only one of 1,100 board members who fully understood the presentation. Thanks to Sen. Margaret Dayton's recent bill, future boards may not have any physicians. A presentation like that to future boards will be as absurd as passengers trying to fly a 747 without a pilot, navigator or radar.
Perhaps of greatest concern are new studies that show even low exposure to those PAHs products of incomplete fossil fuel combustion, especially prevalent at oil refineries is extremely toxic to chromosomes and brain development.
Refinery pollution builds up in homes near refineries, exceeding outdoor levels. And children living near refineries have higher levels of PAHs than adults. PAHs accumulate at higher concentrations on the fetal side of the placenta where they can precipitate far more cancer-causing DNA damage than in the pregnant mother. Living near a refinery doubles the risk of leukemia.
Researchers from the Columbia School of Public Health have been studying air pollution's impact on the developing human embryo for 12 years, making some startling discoveries. Children born to mothers in the upper half of exposure to PAHs had 5 percent lower IQs at age 5 than children of mothers in the lower half of exposure. At age 7, they showed more behavior, attention-deficit and mood disorders, regardless of the air pollution the child breathed after birth.
The world's premier medical journal, The New England Journal of Medicine, recently published a review of the health consequences of exposure to oil. They advised pregnant women to avoid even the odor of oil. Anyone ever notice an odor coming from the refineries?
In my dreams, Utah politicians care about our pregnant mothers and our children's health, and they not only prevent more refinery pollution, but demand a full-court press to clean them up. UPHE has been trying to persuade the governor, legislators and the DAQ to do just that. But so far their response seems to be, "Yeah, in your dreams."
Brian Moench is president of Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment.