Brian Moench: Seven deadly misperceptions about our air quality

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) The inversion looking west from Little Cottonwood Canyon, Wednesday, Dec. 4, 2019.

The Bible teaches that if we want to go to heaven we must avoid seven deadly sins — pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, wrath and country western music. If the Bible were written today by someone in Salt Lake City, it might teach that if we don’t want to go to heaven prematurely, we should avoid seven deadly misconceptions about our air pollution.

• First misconception: Winter inversions are “unhealthy for sensitive groups.”

This is an official government curveball. Thousands of medical studies have clearly identified those "sensitive groups" as everyone who breathes. Yes, some people are more sensitive than others, but air pollution is “unhealthy” for everyone, including all our legislators.

• Second misconception: Air pollution primarily provokes breathing problems.

Eliminate the “primarily” and add “The Full Monty” of health hazards that come from smoking cigarettes — like heart attacks, strokes, sudden death and cancer. Then add things like brain and nervous system disorders, diminished memory and cognition, Alzheimer’s, autism, behavioral disorders and mental illness. Next add poor pregnancy and birth outcomes, impaired fetal development, birth defects and genetic damage. Finally add some things you would never have thought of, like type II diabetes, kidney disease, serious infections and arthritis.

• Third misconception: Thankfully inversions are only short term problems, most of the time our air is clean ... “ish.”

Even short-term pollution has long-term consequences. The microscopic particles you inhale this week can invade any cell of any critical organ, like the brain, heart, lungs, lining of blood vessels, kidneys and placenta, and hang around for months. And some may never leave. The inflammation triggered by those particles is potent enough to cause continuous biological damage and precipitate disease.

• Fourth misconception: Relax, we seldom violate EPA standards, everything’s fine.

EPA standards are almost beside the point. There is no safe level of air pollution — none, zero, zip. At any level it causes harm. Furthermore the relationship is not linear. Personal air pollution, i.e. smoking cigarettes, shows this stark relationship; smoking as little as one cigarette a day is nearly half as much risk as smoking a full pack. The same non-linearity is found with community air pollution. A recent landmark study showed that 99% of deaths from air pollution occurred in cities and towns that meet the EPA’s standards, which speaks volumes about the adequacy of those standards. Between 1,000 and 2,000 of Utah’s residents die every year due to our air pollution.

• Fifth misconception: We have on average only about 14 days in the winter where pollution is an issue.

As per above, our air pollution problem is year round, 24/7. Most of the related morbidity and mortality occurs during our non-inversion seasons when the air quality seems decent.

• Sixth misconception: Air pollution is a single entity and cars are our biggest problem.

Actually not all air pollution is created equal, some types are much more dangerous than others. The most toxic types are wood smoke, diesel exhaust and industrial emissions because of the chemicals attached to those particles, and we should address these sources first.

• Seventh misconception: The problem is unsolvable because we live in a geographic bowl which traps the pollution.

Yes, our mountains make solving the problem more difficult. But it’s not our mountains failing to enact reasonable, appropriate or creative public policy. Our stagnant air is more the result of stagnant politics which leaves us with counterproductive assumptions like these: “We can’t afford extensive, convenient, free mass transit. Besides, that would be creeping socialism.” “I feel fine, it can’t really be that harmful.” “Stop complaining, our air used to be worse.” “What’s good for business is good for the rest of us.” “We must not infringe on my freedom to pollute.”

With wholesale protection of polluters, attacking the scientific bedrock of virtually all environmental regulations, and thereby public health, apparently the Trump Administration’s idea of “Making America Great Again” is turning it into a real world environmental hellscape right out of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-earth. But Utah law allows the state to set, and enforce, our own air quality standards stricter than the EPA’s. Utah should follow the science even if the White House won’t. We already have the tools to “Make Utah’s Air Great Again.” Failing to do so would be an “eighth sin,” and the deadliest one of all.

Scott Sommerdorf | The Salt Lake Tribune UPHE Board President, Dr. Brian Moench, speaks at a press conference, Wednesday, July 12, 2017.

Brian Moench, M.D., is president of Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment, board chairman of the international coalition Doctors and Scientists Against Wood Smoke Pollution and author of the non-fiction book, “Death by Corporation: Killing Humankind in the Age of Monster Corporations.”