(EnviroNews Utah) — Salt Lake City, Utah — Marching to the state capitol in Salt Lake City on a beautiful but chilly, pre-spring day, more than 800 students from campuses like Rowland Hall (one hour, three minutes, one-way on foot) the Madeleine Choir School (seventeen minutes, one-way), the McGillis School and Judge Memorial Catholic High School, brought pickets, speeches and song, as they converged on the State Capitol on Monday, March 5, to tell Utah lawmakers they’ve had enough bad air days. The event was titled, Utah Students for Clean Air Rally.
Besides offering scientific evidence to back up their demands, they also added some unique perspectives during the last week of this year’s state legislative session. “As a kid, I’m going to be breathing the bad air longer than all of the adults here, unless we start cleaning it up,” said Milo Shaw, age 12, of the Madeline Choir School. He called on Utah lawmakers to put funding into a wood-fired heater exchange program that aims to reduce particulate pollution during winter days.
For students like Milo, each “red air day” advisory for the Wasatch Front comes with mandatory confinement indoors to avoid exposure to Utah’s toxic air when it becomes trapped by atmospheric inversions and the mountainous bowl surrounding the Salt Lake Valley. Young lungs and airways reside at the very bottom of the poisonous soup – a cocktail containing nitrogen dioxide, sulphur dioxide and particulate matter (PM 2.5). These substances, along with many others, collect when winter air is heavy and still, begetting a dangerous and even deadly environment.
After arriving and assembling in the Capitol Rotunda, the student speakers, along with Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski and state Representative Patrice Arent (D), were introduced by Brian Moench, MD, Founder of the Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment (UPHE). As an anesthesiologist at the University of Utah Medical Center, Dr. Moench has been instrumental in exposing the medical hazards of the Beehive State’s noxious air, and he explained his views on additional public health problems that have gone unaddressed by state and federal lawmakers.
Utah has long-suffered from poor air quality and activists have been stymied recurrently by the manufacturing, mining and refining lobbies, in a state where lawmakers receive most of their election funds from special interests. Governor Gary Herbert (R) himself was called out last year for accepting more than $18,000 in campaign contributions from the coal industry. EnviroNews wanted to know what has changed in the past five years since this issue boiled to the surface, nowadays even being compared to the hideous air in Beijing. Dr. Moench asked the student mob why they were in school to begin with. He then suggested it was because they were there to learn and then went on to let them know that “by coming [there] today, they [were] making the world a better place for [themselves], for [their] family, for [their] city and for [their] state.”
Dr. Moench told the students that pollution affects the proper function of their lungs, heart, and even their brain, the organ most crucial for becoming an effective learner. He compelled them to contact their lawmakers and gave them the phone number to do it. Meanwhile, students called upon all adults to either get busy on the issue or to get out of their way.
Jessica, of Judge Memorial Catholic High School, expressed her concern as an asthma patient like 25 million others in the country. She pointed out that chronic Pulmonary obstruction disease affects 4% of Utah’s population, including people who have never used tobacco. She told the assembled audience that her research has informed her understanding that pollution, especially pervasive in the air, causes pre-term deliveries, low birth weigh, stillbirths and other avoidable complications in expecting mothers.
“People 65 years of age or older now have a higher chance of heart attacks and lung disease,” Jessica continued. She went on to say that care for the environment was a Christian value that should be addressed not just on Sunday but “lived every day.”
Olivia, age 11, from Salt Lake City’s Madeleine Choir School declared that the young generation was being denied a common resource, that of clean air, and that the students were at the Capitol on this day “not to ask, but to demand action and accountability now.” She went on to ask how all the adults have failed in making the world she is growing up in and inheriting, better for her and her generation.
Utah policymakers have not addressed specific clean air bills to this point in their 45-day legislative session, but under the leadership of a former Utah Transit Authority (UTA) board member and the retiring Speaker of the House of Representatives, the state is overhauling its approach to transit, including the adoption of more electric mass transit from the 2017 session. Last November, Governor Herbert announced that the UTA Board would be revised and that a new Transit Commission would replace the former Board. In addition, Speaker Greg Hughes declared on KSL Radio that the changes would completely overhaul the way that transportation is considered in the Beehive State.
Utah doctors like Brian Moench and the next generation of researchers, health advocates, administrators and new physicians are becoming experts in the comprehension of environmental threats to public health. They say that previous policy in Utah has been killing people and making them sick and that the epidemiology is clear even if the air is not.