Rep. Ben McAdams holds air quality town hall

(Zoi Walker | The Salt Lake Tribune) Elizabeth Joy, senior medical director at Intermountain Health Care, discusses the many steps all Utahns can take to contribute to better air quality in the Wasatch Front during a town hall meeting at West Valley City Hall, Jan. 23, 2020.

West Valley City • With the Wasatch Front tagged as one of the most polluted areas in the country, cleaning up the air is a top priority for residents and policymakers.

“The challenge with improving our air is there’s no single solution that’s going to solve it. So it takes a lot of little things,” said Congressman Ben McAdams.

McAdams, a Democrat, held a town hall meeting Thursday night in West Valley City to discuss solutions with scientists, air quality advocates and politicians.

“We’re all impacted by our poor air but it really affects kids and seniors and people in poor health,” said McAdams. He said ozone pollution contributes to hundreds of thousands of missed school days by Utah kids.

Dr. Daniel Mendoza echoed this concern with his research on the connection between poor air quality and students missing class. He found a strong correlation between the two and said this could have severe economic impacts.

Not only do schools lose money when students don’t go to class, families lose money too. “If a child is suddenly ill probably due to air quality … then one parent at least has to stay home to take care of the child,” said Mendoza. This can cost a parent their salary for the day which especially hurts low-income families, not to mention the lost productivity for employers.

This also hurts 56% of students in the Salt Lake City school district who qualify for free or reduced cost meals because they aren’t able to get them at school.

Rep. Patrice Arent, D-Millcreek, is the founder of the Utah Legislature’s clean air caucus. She encouraged Utahns to avoid idling and use less-polluting Tier 3 gas.

In this year’s legislative session, which starts Monday, Arent is sponsoring several bills to improve air quality. Some bills will focus on improving mass transit. Arent is also working on a project to give homebuyers reports of the amount of energy a home consumes.

Arent’s other bills focus on getting more charging stations for electric cars and helping low-income families get older, dirtier cars off the road.

Scott Williams, a physician with Heal Utah, said the rapid population growth of the state isn’t something we can change. He suggested applying specific principles to growing areas in Utah to keep the air quality from getting worse.

“It includes renewable energy, it includes energy efficiency as much as possible, and then it includes planning so that people can work and live and play and walk their dog without having to get in their car,” said Williams.

Elizabeth Joy, senior medical director at Intermountain Health Care, emphasized the need for a comprehensive approach to improving air quality.

“It needs to be in public transit, in how we design our cities, what type of gas do we sell to people at the pump, what type of cars are we promoting ... how we build homes,” Joy said. Utah also needs to reduce pollution from tail pipes, which is the primary source of pollution in the Wasatch front.

She said there is an association between higher pollution levels and spontaneous miscarriage or premature delivery in pregnant women. People exposed to air pollution also have higher rates of dementia.

Joy encouraged Utahns to take personal responsibility to improve air quality. “We all have to play a part to improve Utah’s air and to reduce the negative impact of air pollution on our health and the health of our loved ones.”

She suggested using resources like https://airnow.gov/ or the UtahAir app to keep track of the AQI (Air Quality Index). Joy said when the AQI gets into the yellow, orange or red zones, Utahns need to take precautions to protect their health.