Imagine a young couple, John and Jane Doe, living on Salt Lake City’s west side in the year 2024. They decide it’s time to have a baby.
Unknown to them, the chromosomes in John’s sperm and Jane’s eggs suffered a bit from the pollution and pesticides they inhaled and ingested when they were younger. Their chances of conceiving are a little less and, if they succeed, the baby’s chromosomes will carry some imperfections that will increase its chance of multiple chronic diseases decades later. Nonetheless, in April, a baby is conceived by the happy couple.
In May, Baby Doe enters the embryonic stage and its organs start to develop. Over the next several months exquisitely precise signaling will drive rapid cell division, and every new cell will be programmed to follow genetic directions for forming new tissue and critical organs, including the most biologically complex organ in the known universe — the human brain.
Thanks to the grandiose new airport, I-80 traffic, the Rio Tinto mine, smelter and tailings piles, and emissions from refinery row, the Jones live where the pollution is already the highest on the Wasatch Front. Some of that pollution will handicap how the genes in the nucleus of the embryonic cells will perform. The delicate process of brain development will suffer, at least a little bit, and possibly much more, especially if it is a male.
But the danger to Baby Doe has just begun. In 2024 the inland port has added tons of new pollution from thousands of diesel engines. Jane Doe will inhale some of it and more pollution nanoparticles will end up in the placenta, travel through the umbilical cord and enter the fetus, interfering with construction of the brain and other organs.
In June more hazards arrive. The Salt Lake City Mosquito Abatement District is aerially spraying a potent neurotoxic organophosphate pesticide, naled, over the area, a small amount of which will be inhaled by Jane Doe at the worst possible time for Baby Doe and will join the pollution particles in making its way to the baby.
Week after week, throughout the summer and early fall, Jane will inhale a little bit more neurotoxin with every spraying, while Baby Doe is adding 250,000 cells per minute to its tiny brain. If those cells don’t arrive where they are supposed to and on time, overall brain function will be irreversibly impaired.
By July, smoke from wildfires will narrow the blood supply in the placenta, reducing the flow of oxygen and critical nutrients. Summers in 2024 are getting ever hotter from the climate crisis, and if the state’s appeal to the EPA to allow higher ozone levels is successful, Baby Doe will face more danger, and could end up one of the more than 8,000 babies a year in the United States that are stillborn because of ozone, some from an ozone spike just in the week prior to delivery.
More ozone will be a bonus hazard of mosquito abatement district’s aerial spraying, because the pesticide is highly diluted with an oil-based carrier, leaving a trail of volatile organic compounds, a precursor of ozone.
Because the couple also live near the airport, where small piston engine airplanes are still allowed to use leaded avgas, Jane Doe will be exposed to a fine mist of lead and other heavy metals which will do what lead always does, impair the development of the brain’s pre-frontal cortex.
In December, luckily, Baby Doe enters the world as a “healthy” newborn, but perhaps without the benefit of the best brain it could have had. On its first birthday, with its brain still in a fragile, critical stage of development, Baby Doe’s cycle of exposure resumes — more ozone, lead, wildfire smoke and pesticides, but now with a new threat; mosquito pesticides in its primary source of food — mother’s breast milk.
This potpourri of toxins will take a toll. For lucky ones, like Baby Doe, the toll can be small — a brain not quite as extraordinary as it could have been. In others it will be much larger — a failed conception, a miscarriage, a still birth or lifetime disability from autism.
Every source of pollution and toxic chemical exposure steals a little from our children’s future.
Every branch of public policy that turns a blind eye, allowing this to continue, is moral failing of us all.
Brian Moench, M.D., is president of Utah Physicians for Healthy Environment (UPHE).
Sara Johnson, M.D., is a pediatrician and board member of UPHE.
Marina Capella, M.D., and Louis Borgenicht, M.D., are pediatricians.