Hanna Saltzman: The health of the lake is the health of our kids

The loss of the Great Salt Lake will bring hazards to our children’s lungs.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Hundreds gather for a "Rally to Save Our Great Salt Lake" at the Capitol building in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Jan. 14, 2023.

Earlier this month, on a day off from working as a doctor at the children’s hospital, I took my baby to a rally at the Utah Capitol. The crowd thrummed with energy. The Great Salt Lake shimmered on the horizon. My baby reached towards brightly painted signs: “Save Our Lake.” “Save It, Don’t Spray It.” “Defend Our Future.”

We went because saving the lake is crucial for the health of my son, my pediatric patients and all the children in the Wasatch Front.

And because this is an emergency.

New research suggests that without dramatic policy changes, the Great Salt Lake could vanish within five years — and legislative decisions made in the next two months could make or break that path.

As a pediatrician and mother, a big brown rally sign summed up my biggest concern: “No to Toxic Dust Bowl.”

Our city’s namesake is a terminal body of water, with water flowing in but not out, which means it’s full of pollutants. Arsenic, mercury, lead and other toxins sit beneath the lake, held down by water and salt. As the lake dries, the toxins rise into the air as dust. This dust then blows across the Wasatch Front, which houses three-fourths of Utah’s population. It travels further still: dust from the Great Salt Lake has been found from Southern Utah to Wyoming.

When toxic dust reaches us, we breathe it in. So do our kids.

There’s no doubt that air pollution is bad for children’s health. If you know a child with asthma, you may have seen how it can be harder to breathe on bad air days. Air pollution is also linked to childhood cancers, birth defects, problems with brain development and other health concerns. With our smog, wildfire smoke, high ozone levels and worsening dust, children here often breathe unsafe air.

But the collapse of the Great Salt Lake brings an extremely urgent new threat. The dust will not simply bring more run-of-the-mill bad air days. The resulting toxic dust storms could be catastrophic for children’s health. Kids are vulnerable to even tiny amounts of pollution and toxins. Take lead, for example, one of the heavy metals found in the lakebed: even the tiniest amount of lead poisoning can harm a child’s brain.

We do not know what, exactly, would happen to children’s health – or to our health, as adults – if we were to breathe storm after storm of toxic dust. We can’t risk finding out.

Due to diversions and drought, the lake has lost more than two-thirds of its water. Salt crusts that hold down the toxic dust are starting to erode. When Owens Lake, a saltwater lake in southern California, dried up in 1926, it became the single largest source of dust in the United States — and held that title for close to a century. The Great Salt Lake, the largest saltwater lake in the Western Hemisphere, is around 12 times larger than Owens Lake. It is difficult to imagine the amount of dust that we will face if the Great Salt Lake continues to dry.

I am heartened by Governor Cox and the Utah Legislature’s declarations of this issue as a priority, as well as last year’s policy changes and funding commitments. This legislative season, we urgently need more: big, bold changes to improve water conservation.

The morning after the rally, my baby woke up and crawled for the first time. He’d been trying for weeks, pumping his arms and legs while stuck on an invisible treadmill. Suddenly, he was rocketing around the room, grinning and babbling like it was the easiest thing in the world.

As a mom and as a pediatrician, I am amazed at how children change every day. This rapid development of their brains and bodies leaves them vulnerable to toxins. But it also lets them greet each day with resolve and delight – even, or especially, when they are learning something hard.

Let us be inspired by children: We, too, can greet challenges with resolve and perhaps even delight. We, too, can make huge changes — even when it’s hard. When it comes to saving the Great Salt Lake, it’s our only option.

Hanna Saltzman

Hanna Saltzman, M.D., is a pediatric resident physician and mother in Salt Lake City.