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Op-ed: The haze is lifting, but not the hazy ideas about pollution

By Brian Moench

First Published Feb 24 2014 05:11 pm • Last Updated Feb 24 2014 05:11 pm

It’s easy for an alcoholic to commit to abstinence after he’s been in a car accident. It’s also easy to abandon that commitment once the accident is only seen receding in the rear view mirror of his mind.

So it is with air pollution. The best time to get citizens and the Legislature to commit to long term policy changes is when the consequences of inaction are staring them in the face, specifically the eyes, nose and throat part of the face — "pollution inebriation" if you will. Nothing focuses the mind quite like the inability to breathe.

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Obviously, our pollution will return. Maintaining focus and commitment while the air is clean is the key to mitigating the next round of pollution inebriation, and the next, and the next. Knowing the truth and the full extent of the problem and its consequences is critical to crafting solutions.

The consequences of not knowing the truth is currently on full display in West Virginia and North Carolina, where more than 300,000 people have had their water polluted by chemical spills and coal ash tailings ponds. Assurances from their state agencies and the companies involved that everything’s fine is little comfort to people who are still passing out and throwing up from drinking the water and smelling it when they shower. Skepticism about the safety of their water is universal.

Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment (UPHE) has been similarly skeptical about claims made about our air pollution. The public has been spoon-fed information from several state agencies and industry that has been misleading and confusing, with inadequate scrutiny from the media.

It’s time to pull back the curtain on what’s really going on in the air over Smog Lake City.

We have collected comments from multiple government agencies, UCAIR, a recent KUED documentary and industry, and have found a remarkable potpourri of misinformation, some of which may be an innocent lack of understanding on the part of the perpetrators, but some of which is either clearly agenda driven or willful ignorance. Below is our list of top 12 air pollution "whoppers."

1. "Yellow alert" pollution is "unhealthy [only] for sensitive groups."

2. "Poor air quality is not expected to increase the risk of birth defects or other poor pregnancy outcomes ... and is not expected to increase the risk of developmental delays or autism."

3. Industry is responsible for only 11 percent of our air pollution.

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4. Our air quality is good 95 percent of the time, winter inversions are our only problem.

5. Once the inversion breaks, the health consequences are over.

6. Burning wood on a "green burn" has no health consequence.

7. If you have no symptoms from pollution, then you are not affected.

8. Historically Wasatch Front air pollution has always been bad and a natural phenomenon, so we can be less concerned.

9. The state is doing everything it can to clean up our air.

10. Once it lands on the ground, air pollution just becomes fertilizer.

11. Large smoke stack industries are monitored 24 hours a day.

12. DAQ permitting guarantees no net increase in emissions from large sources.

Each of these claims deserves a thorough deconstruction, far beyond the word limit of a newspaper op-ed. UPHE have compiled a report, "Smoke and Mirrors: Fact vs. Fiction About Utah’s Air Pollution," that addresses these issues which we will present at a public forum at 7 p.m. Thursday at the Salt Lake City Main Library auditorium.

Utah citizens deserve the full story on our air pollution, then they can judge for themselves whether they are being patronized, much like the water pollution victims in West Virginia and North Carolina.

Brian Moench is a Salt Lake City physician and founder of Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment.

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

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