Utah doctors want governor to get aggressive on air quality

Jan 24 2013 - 12:22am

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Dr. Gary Kunkel arrives at the Utah State Capitol wearing a breathing mask before a news conference Wednesday in Salt Lake City. A group of doctors is declaring a health emergency over northern Utah’s lingering pollution problem. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has singled out the greater Salt Lake region as having the nation’s worst air for much of January, when an icy fog smothers mountain valleys for days or weeks at a time and traps soot. (Rick Bowmer/The Associated Press)
A poor air quality sign is posted over a highway Wednesday in Salt Lake City. A group of doctors is declaring a health emergency over northern Utah's lingering pollution problem. Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment planned to deliver a petition Wednesday demanding immediate action by elected officials.  (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)
Dr. Gary Kunkel arrives at the Utah State Capitol wearing a breathing mask before a news conference Wednesday in Salt Lake City. A group of doctors is declaring a health emergency over northern Utah’s lingering pollution problem. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has singled out the greater Salt Lake region as having the nation’s worst air for much of January, when an icy fog smothers mountain valleys for days or weeks at a time and traps soot. (Rick Bowmer/The Associated Press)
A poor air quality sign is posted over a highway Wednesday in Salt Lake City. A group of doctors is declaring a health emergency over northern Utah's lingering pollution problem. Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment planned to deliver a petition Wednesday demanding immediate action by elected officials.  (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

SALT LAKE CITY -- A group of Utah doctors have called on Gov. Gary Herbert to declare a public health state of emergency as a result of the inversion and to impose measures to alleviate the problem.

The suggestions include a reduction in speeds on state freeways, and free mass transit for the winter season.

"This is not a short-term problem with limited consequence," Dr. Brian Moench, said of current air conditions in the Beehive State.

He said problems caused by current air conditions will not disappear until weeks after current pollution conditions have been resolved. He predicted death rates will remain elevated for as much as a month after air conditions improve.

At an afternoon news conference Tuesday in the Hall of Governors at the state Capitol, six other doctors joined with Moench in calling for tougher measures to address existing conditions. The news conference came amid inversion conditions that have persisted for a week and led two cities, including Ogden, to be listed among the worst for air pollution in the nation. The group, Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment, was scheduled to deliver the letter to the governor's office at the end of the news conference. The letter contained the signatures of more than 100 doctors.

As well as calling for free transit and reduced speeds, the letter asks the governor and other cities along the Wasatch Front to adopt the following measures:

  • A health advisory to the public to avoid exercise outdoors.
  • Call for Kennecott and the five oil refineries in Davis and Salt Lake counties to reduce production by 50 percent.
  • Prohibit wood burning during the inversion season.
  • Promote public service announcements at the state and local levels, acknowledging the emergency and asking businesses to allow workers to telecommute, reducing employee driving.

A number of the doctors addressed specific health concerns related to air pollution, from coronary to respiratory issues.

Dr. Kirtly Jones, an OB/GYN who is an expert in reproductive endocrinology, said the impact of even limited air pollution to the unborn is especially acute.

"People will say it doesn't really matter, it was only a bad month. Because of a bad month some women will miscarry, there will be more babies born premature and kids will be at greater risk," Jones said.

She said five days of bad air is enough to impact a fetus. She recommended pregnant women stay indoors and also use HEPA filters at home, when possible, during bad air season.

Dr. Richard Canner, who served on the state board that issues air quality permits, said lawmakers have to do a lot more about addressing air quality. He said the current setup, where the governor appoints the director of air quality, essentially allows the governor to have a direct say in the permit process.

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