Already this winter along the Wasatch Front, we've suffered through 20 "Red Air" days. Five times the EPA has judged our air quality the worst in the country. Worse than L.A. Worse than New York. Worse than anywhere else in the United States. The obvious brown muck hangs like a toxic fog from Logan in the north to Spanish Fork in the south ... more than a 130 miles of unhealthy air. If you do venture outside in these conditions, the gunk immediately stings your eyes, feels scratchy in your throat, and quickly irritates your nose, sinuses, and lungs. Breathing becomes unpleasant.
If you're young or old, sick or infirm, or have any respiratory problems (asthma, bronchitis, emphysema, lung cancer, heart disease, etc.), health officials advise that you stay inside. For the rest of us, they suggest that we don't undertake any physical activities out-of-doors.
What in Utah are we doing about this serious health, environmental, and economic problem? Not much. In fact, we're making it worse. Much worse. With every new subdivision, strip mall, freeway lane, and far-flung housing development, we encourage people to drive. Utahns rack up some 15,000 miles per vehicle per year now.
And Utah has far more registered vehicles than licensed drivers (100 vehicles for every 78 drivers, making us among the 10 most out-of-balance states in the country). These figures do not count our growing love for RVs, ATVs, ORVs, snowmobiles, boats, lawnmowers, leaf blowers, snow blowers, string trimmers, chain saws, and every other sort of motorized and polluting gadget. Oh, we sound concerned: "it's a red burn day so please don't use your fireplace or barbeque, and car pool if you can." These are band-aids on a ruptured aorta.
The real problem is that we have created a lifestyle and a landscape that require us to drive, usually solo, everywhere to do anything. Most of us, by choice, live in one place, work in another, shop in still another, recreate in yet another, and so on. It has become our way of life, and we're pretty attached to it even if the costs are high. And they're very high. Don't believe me? Talk to anyone with respiratory maladies or a kid with asthma. Visit the Web site "Utah Moms for Clean Air." Talk to Dr. Brian Moench, founder and head of Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment.
Visit any Wasatch Front elementary school during morning or afternoon pick-up. There, a huge queue of idling soccer moms and dads in their hulking SUVs create some of the most toxic air conditions in the state. Surely these parents think about what their kids inhale as they make their way to and from their classrooms, don't they?
What are our local and state leaders doing about air quality and your health? Very little. Mass transit, pedestrian-friendly developments, stronger pollution regulations, anti-sprawl measures, and many other progressive planning initiatives routinely succumb to political fights and funding struggles that then become mired in the muck of maintaining the status quo. Just last year, our congressional delegation petitioned the EPA to relax their agency air quality standards so that Box Elder County wouldn't fall below compliance levels and look bad.
Bad for whom? What about expanding the vehicle emissions programs to rural counties, diesel pick-up trucks, and 18-wheelers? Our leaders routinely deem those measures too costly or cumbersome. Just last fall, before this awful winter of bad air, the Utah Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) argued that our air quality was actually improving. And it has by some measures, but by other measures, it's grown much worse.
The DEQ did this, in part, by comparing conditions today to an old coal-fired Utah before catalytic converters and emissions testing, and mostly by blaming the weather. It's true that temperature inversions provide the atmospheric trap, but it is our lifestyle which fills the trap with our wastes. The American Lung Association disagrees with the Utah DEQ. By the Association's assessment, Salt Lake routinely makes the nation's top ten list of worst cities for particulate pollution in the winter, and the entire Wasatch Front receive a grade of F for ozone in the summer. The simple truth is this: most of us just don't really care much about air quality.
We rationalize our driving choices in dozens of ways, and we go on doing what we've always done. Air quality is someone else's problem. Well, it's not anymore. The emergency room visits, the declining economic vitality, and the loss of quality of life, those ills belong to all of us.
Apologists for dirty practices would have you believe that protecting the environment discourages economic growth. Innumerable studies prove exactly the opposite: a quality environment encourages economic growth. Tell me then, how does Utah expect to recruit those very businesses we say we want (high-tech, recreation-oriented, knowledge-based, creativity-minded) when we're busy fouling the very environment they'd be asked to live in?
It's a good question. Some have suggested changing Utah's slogan of "Life Elevated" to "Life Polluted." Think about that the next time you leave your car idling. Think about that the next time you have the chance to walk, bicycle, car pool, or ride the bus, FrontRunner, or Trax. Think about that the next time you take a deep breath. Your kids and grandkids will be glad that you did and we'll all breathe a little easier.
Eric C. Ewert, PhD, is an associate professor in the Department of Geography at Weber State University.