A look at air pollution and vulnerable populations

Editor’s note: This is one in a series of stories about a clean air symposium held at the University of Utah on Oct. 3, 2019.

The poorer the child, the more likely he or she is to breathe polluted air every day. That’s one of the stark realities explored at the recent air pollution summit at the University of Utah.

Maps of air pollution hotspots in the Salt Lake Valley show higher concentrations of PM2.5 levels in areas that house the highest concentrations of economically disadvantaged children, said Daniel Mendoza, research assistant professor in the Department of Atmospheric Sciences and a pulmonary fellow in the School of Medicine. He was one of four members of  an Environmental Health Inequities panel moderated by Adrienne Cachelin, sustainability education director of the U’s Sustainability Office.

“One of the most vulnerable populations are school children,” Mendoza said.

“Globally, 93% of children under 15 breathe polluted air that puts their health and development at serious risk,” said panel member Phillip Singer, assistant professor of political science. “A quarter of deaths under 5 are related to environmental pollutants.” Closer to home, pollution hotspots are located near freeways and in industrial areas with the largest concentrations of emitters, neighborhoods that are also home to children whose families have lower incomes.

In addition, aging schools—with older heating and cooling systems—may also be a factor, due to emission leakages that can affect outdoor and indoor air, he said.

Under a grant in development with the departments of political science, atmospheric science, medicine and public health, Singer and his colleagues are exploring the connection between air pollution and chronic school absenteeism, in a state with one of the highest rates of absenteeism in the country.

Utah’s Native American tribes are also impacted by air pollution, including from abandoned uranium mines, said Scott Collingwood, research assistant professor in the School of Medicine’s Department of Pediatrics. In the Navajo Nation, he said, there are some 500 abandoned uranium mines.

The tribes are dismayed that they are usually left out of environmental research studies, he said. But there are now pilot projects involving two tribes, with the tribes taking the lead in determining what issues should be explored.

Although system change requires leadership at governmental and institutional levels, “too many times, people just think air quality is ‘beyond my control,’ ” Mendoza said. “But you’re responsible for 30 to 50% of your own personal exposure,” including idling your car and mowing your lawn with gas mowers.

Not long ago, he attended a “clean air festival”—where the punchline was that if people bought electric cars and solar panels they could save the world. Good advice, but not the kind of difference the people most affected by polluted air can afford, he said. He was heartened, though, by two air pollution events held on Salt Lake’s westside, where participants were offered window insulation kits, LED lights and low-flow shower heads.

Solving the pollution caused by Utah’s freeways is beyond an individual’s realm of influence, “but this is something people can do and actually see a change.”