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Taking action on inversions

Published February 16, 2013 1:01 am

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

How do we solve our inversions? First and foremost, acknowledge the problem.

This was the impetus behind the letter the Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment delivered to Gov. Gary Herbert on Jan. 23, which declared a public health state of emergency based on extreme Wasatch Front pollution levels.

Acknowledging the severity of this problem was easy for the more than 160 physicians and 200 other health care professionals who have signed on to this letter.

Evidence that the legislative majority and the governor are taking this issue seriously is, unfortunately, lacking. Instead of legislative proposals we are hearing about voluntary effort, while at the same time the state is granting permits for expansion to our biggest industrial polluters.

Many Utahns feel that since our temperature inversions are geographically and climatologically driven, there is "nothing that can be done."

It's true inversion makes it harder to have clean air, but also true that if we didn't emit any pollutants, our inversions would mainly be noticeable as colder temperatures, without a significant health or visibility impact.

And seasonal air degradation brings an opportunity for seasonal action.

The course of action during inversions recommended to Herbert includes: limiting freeway speeds to 55 mph in the valley; making all mass transit options free to the public, asking the Legislature to come up with lost UTA revenues; a prohibition on wood burning and waste incineration; requiring the top industrial polluters to reduce production by 50 percent; and asking employers to find ways to limit employee driving.

Over the longer term, industrial regulation, adoption of California car and diesel emissions standards, and giving priority to more mass transit over highway construction will ease the public health burden of our inversions.

As the governor has mentioned, there is indeed a clear role for personal action and responsibility in improving our wintertime air quality. We advise households to turn down their thermostats if possible, and minimize other gas-burning appliances.

And the single best thing you can do to protect air quality is to find a way to work with a minimum of driving. If you must drive, use the most efficient vehicle available, and carpool/coordinate trips when possible.

In addition to protecting others, you can protect yourself by avoiding outdoor exercise during inversions, and staying inside in particular if you are pregnant or have pre-existing heart and lung conditions.

Good-fitting particle-filtering masks such as N95 respirators, available at hardware stores, reduce the amount of PM 2.5 pollution that you inhale, but consult your doctor before use if you have a heart/lung condition.

Personal action is important, but the benefits of collective (governmental) action cannot be underestimated. It's not politically correct in certain quarters to admit that government action can improve our lives, but does anyone doubt that our pollution would be much worse without existing government regulations?

Repeated statements of concern, and calls for voluntary limits on driving and industrial pollution haven't managed to make a dent in our PM 2.5 averages over the last decade. Some say we must choose between "economic growth" and clean air. But is there any doubt that being headlined as having the worst air quality in the nation is a drag on economic growth, or that increased ER visits, premature deaths and lost work days do the same?

The fact is, the average citizen would jump at the chance to breathe cleaner air and would support a shared sacrifice to do so. Government intervention is a critical ingredient in improving air quality.

All of us, public citizens and corporate citizens, should play a part, but we dearly hope that the governor and the legislative majority don't neglect to play theirs.

Gary Kunkel is an assistant professor of medicine at the University of Utah and energy policy analyst for Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment.