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Op-ed: If we don’t clean Utah air, we can only blame ourselves

By Jean Hill

First Published Feb 03 2014 04:39 pm • Last Updated Feb 03 2014 04:39 pm

Our air is killing us. Granted, I state the case this way to grab attention, but it is also factual. Study after study from UCLA, the American Lung Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the National Institutes of Health and others provide a long list of the deadly ills caused or exacerbated over the long term by air pollutants.

The impacts are heaviest on the most vulnerable, particularly children. Exposure to air pollution during the first trimester of pregnancy may affect a child’s growth, lead to preterm births, and may cause congenital heart defects. Stillbirths and Sudden Infant Death Syndrome are also linked to air pollutant exposure. At any given time, there are roughly 40,000 pregnant women in Utah. All will be exposed to unhealthy air quality within their pregnancies.

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Exposure to toxins in the air triggers illnesses such as asthma, cancer, learning disabilities and others in the growing bodies of children. The Environmental Protection Agency found that children living near refineries are exposed to more toxic substances than other children. In North Salt Lake and Woods Cross, the suburban areas closest to refineries, 16.2 percent of children have asthma, compared to the normal prevalence rate of 5 percent.

For adults, cardiac arrhythmias, heart attacks, pneumonia, lung cancer and bronchitis are all associated with increases in particulates in the air. A national study of women showed that a 10mcg/m3 in PM 2.5 resulted in a 76 percent increase in the risk of death from heart disease and a 35 percent in the risk of stroke. All of which means more emergency room visits, hospital stays, and missed days from school and work. For people without health insurance, the impacts may be even more devastating.

A recent clean air rally attended by thousands of Utahns shows that many in our state find this situation intolerable. If that is the case, then all of us, from elected officials to government agencies, to individuals, must step up to solve the crisis.

The Department of Air Quality is seeking solutions to the problem. Each day, more of our elected officials seem to recognize that the actual number of bad air days is less important than the overall effects on our health. DAQ can help address the problem by adopting stronger emissions standards for industry.

The agency is barred from doing so, however, by state law. This minor roadblock to better air could be easily eliminated through legislative action to amend current law prohibiting the state from adopting air quality standards more stringent than those set by the Environmental Protection Agency. As the law stands, state standards depend on the political winds in Washington, D.C.—ebbing and flowing as administrations change.

Rep. Becky Edwards is introducing legislation (Air Quality Revisions) to allow the state to enact emissions standards that better reflect local needs. Voters need to encourage their legislators to support the bill.

Voters and non-voters also need to be a part of emissions reduction strategies. If you idle your car to warm it on cold mornings, or because you don’t want to turn it off while you wait for your kids to come out of school, you are contributing to the ill health of your family and neighbors. Stop it. A cold car is unpleasant for a few minutes. The effects of the exhaust on human health last a lifetime.

Individuals also need to drive less and drive smarter. Tips for doing so are readily available on the internet.

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Utah’s air quality is our responsibility. If we refuse to change our own behavior, refuse to demand changes in state law, policy, and priorities, we will have only ourselves to blame for our shortened life spans.

Jean Hill is government liaison for the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City.

Copyright 2014 The Salt Lake Tribune. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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