Hanna Saltzman: Lesson from the pandemic is to prioritize clean air

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Several metropolitan areas around the country have seen improved air quality as more people work from home and social distance in an effort to curb the spread of the coronavirus. Utah Department of Air Quality spokesman Jared Mendenhall says that hasn't been the case in the Salt Lake Valley, as seen on Wednesday, March 25, 2020, or in the Beehive State as large, since March and April are generally good air quality months. Though if the coronavirus was happening in December, he said the efforts would be making a difference.

As The Salt Lake Tribune recently reported, new research from the Harvard School of Public Health suggests that air pollution makes COVID-19 infections even deadlier.

It’s no secret that the Salt Lake Valley has an air pollution problem. As an incoming pediatric resident physician with a background in environmental health, I am deeply concerned about the implications of this study for our community.

Exposure to air pollution can damage our health. Particularly relevant for the COVID-19 pandemic, air pollution can harm the very organs that appear to play a role in how COVID-19 causes death: the lungs, the heart and the immune system.

In the lungs, air pollution can worsen lung function, asthma and lung inflammation. In the heart, air pollution is associated with heart attacks, irregular heartbeats and high blood pressure. In the immune system, air pollution can contribute to body-wide inflammation.

When air pollution has, over time, already damaged these organ systems, our bodies may not be able to mount as good of a defense against the virus’s attack on them.

Some air pollution particles are so small that, when inhaled, they can slip past our noses and throats, entering our lungs and blood vessels. These microscopic solids and droplets are known as fine particulate matter (PM2.5). The Harvard School of Public Health study found that even a small increase in long-term exposure to these tiny particles is linked to a spike in deaths from COVID-19.

On a more positive note, a rare silver lining of the pandemic has been a reminder around the globe that clean air is possible. NASA satellites have identified major decreases in pollution worldwide, from China to the Northeastern United States. Los Angeles reported its longest March stretch of good air quality since 1995.

Here in Salt Lake City, many people have commented on how good it feels to take a deep breath lately, the mountains crisp on the horizon.

Improving air quality can drastically improve public health. To give one historical example from the Utah Valley, during a winter in the 1980s in which a large steel mill was closed, there was a major drop in air pollution, and two-thirds fewer children were hospitalized for asthma and other lung diseases. Premature birth and overall mortality rates also dropped.

Though scientists have not yet evaluated the public health impact of cleaner air during the COVID-19 pandemic, we can imagine similar improvements. Obviously, shelter-in-place is not an appropriate solution to our air pollution problems. But cleaner air during this time is a reminder that big change is possible.

Fortunately, there are far less disruptive solutions to keeping Utah’s air clean. For example, let’s improve vehicle emissions and incentivize zero-emission vehicles. Let’s bolster public transportation. Let’s make sure that we prioritize the health of the environment in all plans for the proposed inland port.

As the pandemic continues, with the 50th anniversary of Earth Day just around the corner, I hope that this unique moment in time can serve as a reminder that it is not possible to disentangle human health from our environments. It is also a reminder that collectively, we can take bold and creative action to improve the health of our communities.

So herein lies the challenge: How will we create a future that includes both clean air and economic prosperity? I believe that through collaboration among citizens, government and the private sector, such a future is possible. We must be bold and creative just as we’ve shown we can be during the past weeks. Together, we can preserve the health, economy and environment of our beautiful state for our children in generations to come.

Hanna Saltzman

Hanna Saltzman, Salt Lake City, is a graduating medical student and incoming pediatric resident physician. Prior to medicine, she worked in environmental health policy.

Twitter at @hannasaltzman.