Rachel Rueckert: Embrace the bans. Fireworks are killing you.

We need to take another look at our idea of what is ‘normal’

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) A sign advertising fireworks in American Fork on Wednesday, June 23, 2021.

We know Utah has some of the worst air quality in the nation and on some days, the world. The July 4th is one of those times.

Because of Utah’s unique geography — a valley encased by mountains that trap pollution in like an old Tupperware lid — that bad air lingers. Though the state canceled firework gatherings in 2020 due to COVID-19, countless individuals took to their driveways to launch their own. They didn’t wait until dark. From my hillside perch in Draper, with a vista of the valley, the displays looked inches apart, maybe a show for every block.

While I was growing up in Utah, aerial fireworks were illegal, but that changed in 2011. The skies were opened to the public. Now, anyone could host their own, personal pyrotechnics show.

I watched red and purple comets pop against the sunset. Whites crackled and sizzled into dust. Glittery golds rained down like feathery tears. Collectively, they were overwhelming. Beautiful. Stunning. Tiny, yet enormous by their numbers.

But when I pulled my dizzying gaze back, to try and absorb them all, my attention shifted to the mountain backdrop. I saw the sky, burning with the last oranges of daylight. Like a time-lapse video, smoke rose and blocked the Rockies, like someone pulling a gauzy drape. Within minutes, the mountain vanished.

Air quality is measured by an air quality index score (AQI). Though Utah ended June of 2020 with an AQI of 46, by the end of the night on July 4th, Utah measured at 107. A “good” AQI, considered “satisfactory” by the EPA, shouldn’t surpass 50. Anything above 50 poses risks to vulnerable populations, and an AQI above 150 is considered unhealthy for everyone.

Even more troubling: recent studies showed that current AQI standards may be outdated and not rigorous enough since everyone is impacted by even the smallest level of pollution, no matter how short the exposure duration. Top experts like Dr. Brian Moench, the founder of Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment, underscore that there is no safe level of pollution.

On July 5, 2020, the holiday aftermath, Salt Lake City hit the worst AQI score of 2020, a startling 194. These red level-upticks have been standard for Salt Lake City in July. But to put those numbers into perspective: on that same day in 2020, Jakarta hit 159, Shanghai hit 126, Mumbai hit 96. Los Angeles, another city in the West that battles pollution, pulled ahead of Utah at 200.

Pollution like this takes a heavy toll on communities. Bad air days are correlated to lower test scores and higher school absences. Pollution harms fetal development and shows increases in miscarriages. It also increases health risks, such as lung disease, heart failure, asthma, pneumonia, and more. Lung cancer studies show that living in an environment like the Wasatch front is equivalent to smoking a pack of cigarettes every day for 29 years.

In Utah, intensive research shows air pollution reduces average life expectancy by 1.1 to 3.6 years, causes between 2,480 and 8,000 premature deaths annually, and costs the state up to 3.3 billion per year.

In addition to human health factors, we must consider the environment this upcoming Fourth of July. Utah, like the rest of the West, has hit severe drought levels of “historic proportions” with an earlier wildfire season. We know this will mean dangerous fire conditions for July 4th. In 2018, fireworks started 19,500 fires in the U.S. The 2020 Fourth of July weekend in Utah alone caused 18 firework-related wildfires. We can expect the same and worse during an even drier year ahead.

The wildfires, in turn, create more and more of that pollution that continues to wreak havoc on our communities. In other words, the true life cycle of a firework show lasts long after we pick up the picnic blankets and drive home for the night.

If the past year has taught us anything, it is that we need to reevaluate our sense of “normal,” including reevaluating our cherished routines and rituals. I recall with fondness my childhood years of Piccolo Petes and whistling fountains and armfuls of cardboard boxes and various plastic tubes for family parties, then as I got older, those romantic moments with lovers under bejeweled skies. But we can no longer ignore the impact pollutants like fireworks have on human health and our environment in the era of climate crisis.

As an eighth-generation Utahn, I can’t help but think of the future generations and wonder if I can afford to stay here. The air, a shared resource, never belonged to any one person or group — COVID-19 taught us that much. We must put community and the long-term ahead of a fleeting sense of fun, no matter how dazzling.

Rachel Rueckert

Rachel Rueckert, Salt Lake City, is an eighth-generation Utahan completing an MFA in nonfiction at Columbia University, where she also teaches Contemporary Essays. She is hard at work on several book projects, including one about air quality in Utah. rachelrueckert.com, @Rachel_Rueckert