I don’t feel like a murderer. You probably don’t either. Yet, each day we climb aboard our combat personnel carriers (mine is a small Toyota), fire up the engine and shoot billions of deadly projectiles out the barrel of the exhaust pipe.
These projectiles, though extremely tiny particles, are no less deadly than shotgun pellets. The smallest of the particles, particulate matter less than 2.5 microns in diameter (PM 2.5), can linger in the air for weeks, then be inhaled deep into lungs to do damage.
These particles consist of soot and tiny chemical droplets. Sulfur dioxide (SO2) can become sulfuric acid in the wetness of the lung, and nitrogen oxides (NOx) can become nitric acid, and each can chemically burn those fragile tissues.
Ozone is another strong chemical irritant. According the World Health Organization, these poisons in our air account for over a quarter of the deaths from lung cancer, COPD, stroke and heart disease. And to make matters worse, those not killed directly from air pollution may face death from climate change-triggered disasters caused by the accumulation of another pollutant, carbon (CO2).
On June 25, 74 respected health organizations including the American Heart Association, the American Lung Association and the American Academy of Pediatrics, published a joint policy statement calling carbon pollution-driven climate change a global public health emergency.
Children breathe faster and deeper than adults and are the canaries in our coal-fire polluted air. They are at even higher risk of lung diseases such as asthma and pneumonia. Our air pollution is linked to premature births, miscarriages and has been shown to shorten chromosomal telomeres (and thus shorten the lifespans) of newborn babies even before their first breath.
Our car exhaust barrels, and the even larger-caliber barrels of coal burning power plants, are firing gases and particles into our air and poisoning us, our children, and threatening the very existence of our grandchildren. The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change last year gave us only 12 years to avoid irreparable alterations to the planet.
Why then does the Utah Legislature mostly avoid addressing the biggest sources of pollution? Why do our leaders pretend that everything is fine? Are they just waiting to be replaced by more caring or braver leaders? Hoping the next shift will solve it?
And why then, just last week, did the Utah Air Quality Board shamelessly duck its responsibility by unanimously passing a Regional Haze Plan that rolls back proven pollution controls that would reduce 75% of key pollutants? They could have, and should have, left in place requirements for Rocky Mountain Power to install catalytic reduction controls on their exhaust barrels to remove nitrogen oxides. And why is Rocky Mountain Power postponing the inevitable retiring of its aging power plants? Why stick with 19th century technology and delay the adoption of clean, non-polluting, renewable energy?
If you are uncomfortable thinking that you are complicit in the deaths of our children and neighbors, then do something. Call your elected leaders. You pay their salaries. They work for you. Inform them that they will get your vote only if they take meaningful steps to avert these fossil-fueled catastrophes. Call your city and county councils and tell them to commit to making your municipality “100% Clean Energy” per Senate Bill 411. And finally, please cut back your own energy use.
The decisions that have led to poisoning our air and sacrificing our children are almost always based on money, in the short term. I wish those decisions were based on avoiding human extinction, in the short term.
William E. Cosgrove, M.D., Cottonwood Heights, is a pediatrician, chair of the Salt Lake County Board of Health, a member of the Sierra Club’s Utah Needs Clean Energy Committee and helped convince Cottonwood Heights to become one of five Utah municipalities to commit to 100% clean energy in the next decade.