This op-ed was originally published on Oct. 13, 2019, in The Salt Lake Tribune.
On Oct. 3, the University of Utah hosted the first of a series of multidisciplinary summits on air quality. Titled “The Air We Breathe,” the symposium’s objectives were to build connections among researchers across our campus, catalyze new collaborations, coordinate research activities and communicate findings.
The fact is that Utah’s bad air is one of the state’s most pressing issues, as air pollution is associated with health problems, adversely affects our quality of life and has the potential to affect economic development. As the University for Utah, we are committed to making a difference in cleaning the air we all breathe.
During the event, more than 180 participants from 14 different departments discussed what work has been done and what opportunities still lie ahead. More than 50 exhibits showed the vast array of research work from faculty, staff and students. The breadth and depth of the work being done at the U is impressive.
For example, John Lin, a professor in atmospheric sciences, is gathering measurements of PM2.5 (particulate matter) and other pollutants using Google Street mapping cars to get high-resolution data.
Kerry Kelly, assistant professor in chemical engineering, is working with an interdisciplinary group of researchers to understand and communicate differences in pollution while engaging high school and middle school students as citizen scientists.
U pulmonologist Cheryl Pirozzi led a study that shows reducing particulate matter can prevent 76 to 112 cases of pneumonia per year in hospitals serving approximately half of the Wasatch Front—reducing direct medical facility costs by $807,000 annually.
Why here and why now?
Most of Utah’s population is concentrated along the long and narrow Wasatch Front. We are surrounded by the natural beauty of our mountains—unfortunately often obscured by wintertime inversions and summertime ozone haze. Salt Lake City is the 14th most polluted city for ozone and eighth-most polluted for short-term particulate pollution, according to the American Lung Association. The association gives Salt Lake County “F” letter grades for those two assessments.
Air quality advisories are common, a necessary action because the health effects of air pollution are real, which many biomedical research groups at the U continue to document. If we improve air quality, we lengthen people’s lives and decrease the rate of disease. We also protect our attraction as a place to live, work and recreate.
Utah’s population is projected to reach 4 million by 2032. Salt Lake County, the state’s most populous county, is expected to grow by 155,000 people in the next five years. More people mean we will potentially experience more pollution unless we take decisive action now.
As those engaged in the movement to clean the state’s air know, achieving policy, structural and behavioral change is difficult. Research provides a foundation for helping to shift perceptions and misperceptions about air quality and how to improve it.
Survey results presented by Tabitha Benney, an assistant professor of political science, show most Utahns think improving the state’s air is possible and 77% of respondents felt a strong or moderate change is achievable. It is Benney’s view that, if motivated collectively through research-based policy, such beliefs have the potential to produce productive and enduring outcomes for all Utahans at a reasonable cost.
It’s not too late to change our trajectory. We can make a difference by working together across academia, government, industry and communities. Take a deep breath and think how wonderful it feels. Don’t take it for granted. Let’s join our efforts to protect the future.