This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2011, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
In December 1952, an episode of London smog killed more than 12,000 people in less than a month, most within the first four days. It changed forever how the world regarded air pollution. As thick winter smog once again smothers the Wasatch Front, a review of research published in 2010 should be the next milestone in how Utahns regard air pollution.
In May, the American Heart Association published the AHA's Updated Scientific Statement on Particulate Matter Air Pollution and Cardiovascular Disease. Based on hundreds of research papers, it suggested a formula for calculating the number of premature deaths in a community based on the concentrations of PM2.5 (particles smaller than 2.5 microns).
This formula produces the same conclusions that the Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment have been stating since 2007. Between 1,000 and 2,000 people in Utah die prematurely every year because of our air pollution.
In 2010, numerous studies added Alzheimer's, autism, diabetes and breast cancer to an already long list of health consequences that showed significant increases with air pollution. The exclamation point to all this research came with a remarkable study published in December.
Researchers examined the diameter of blood vessels in the back of the eye (the only part of the body where tiny blood vessels called arterioles are directly visible) in 4,607 people. Arterioles narrow with age and disease processes like high blood pressure. The investigators correlated narrowing of these arterioles with the amount of PM2.5 air pollution the patients were exposed to and discovered this: Chronic exposure to 3 micrograins per cubic meter of PM2.5 was associated with the amount of arteriole narrowing as would be found from seven years of aging, or a 3 mmHg increase in blood pressure.
It just so happens that 3 micrograins per cubic meter of PM2.5 is about how much pollution Rio Tinto admits to being responsible for in Salt Lake and Utah counties. This becomes a sobering confirmation of the health price tag we all pay for Rio Tinto.
In August, the Annals of Internal Medicine published a study demonstrating lung and chromosomal damage among oil spill cleanup workers whose exposure was comparable to that of Salt Lake City/Red Butte Creek residents during the Chevron oil spill: "Our findings indicate that exposure to oil sediments, even for short periods, may have detrimental health effects." This type of chromosomal damage has been associated with increased cancer risk.
Last April, an Associated Press nationwide investigation discovered that pollution from oil refineries is at least 10 times greater than what is publicly reported to the government. With five refineries near Woods Cross, what is most depressing is the ongoing silence on the part of any Utah officials in response.
As the 2011 Legislature prepares its agenda, it would certainly be a breath of fresh air if mounting evidence on the ravages of air pollution began shaping public policy. But don't count on it unless citizens consider this something worth fighting for. Start by contacting your legislators and demanding some New Year's "pollution" resolutions. My list:
Be it resolved that we finally give mass transit funding priority over freeways; that we say no to Rio Tinto's expansion as they are already our biggest polluter; that we demand real, not imaginary, or dishonest data about how much pollution our refineries emit; that Chevron pay for a health study of exposed Red Butte residents and move the pipeline away from Red Butte Creek; that those legislators scheming to weaken the Utah Department of Environmental Quality and the Division of Air Quality be exposed for violating the public trust; and those state agencies be liberated from the pressure to act as handmaidens of industry and function in their proper role as guardians of public health. Keeping these resolutions would bring a truly Happy New Year.
Brian Moench is president of the Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment, a member of the Union of Concerned Scientists, and teaches health and the environment at the University of Utah Osher Lifelong Learning Institute.