Utah children and Einstein's brain
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Hours after Albert Einstein died in 1955, his brain was removed, photographed and dissected in hopes of discovering physical characteristics that may have explained his remarkable intelligence. After being lost for 55 years, those photos just resurfaced.

Although normal size, Einstein's brain showed extraordinary complexity and convolution. But had Einstein grown up in Utah he would likely never have been the world's iconic genius.

The Utah Division of Air Quality is changing its messaging about air quality, adding several more colors to its "alert" system. The agency says this will allow earlier, preventive pollution interventions. Great. But at the same time, DAQ officials also say they are doing so because the "healthy" public doesn't need to worry about modest pollution levels and that only "sensitive" groups need to alter their activities and only when the air pollution is severe.

Comforting as that is, it's simply not true.

Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment, the American Lung Association, the America Heart Association and mainstream medical organizations throughout the country have repeatedly delivered a clear message from thousands of medical studies: Air pollution is a systemic health risk. That means it precipitates a broad range of diseases affecting every organ system, impairs the health and shortens life expectancy for everyone — not just "sensitive" groups — kills some of us outright and victimizes children especially. And it does all of this even at levels that the DAQ is now claiming are no risk to health.

For example, building on an already robust body of research, an extensive study of 15,000 adults over 50 years old demonstrated that air pollution exposure is associated with an acceleration of cognitive decline. The "moderate" pollution levels common to the Wasatch Front correspond to a loss of intellectual capacity equivalent to three years of aging.

It is now well-established that air pollution is one of many environmental influences that impair brain growth in the womb, a unique developmental period, and the consequences can be lifelong, irreversible and sufficiently severe to impair one's intelligence.

The Harvard School of Public Health compared the intelligence of children growing up in the most polluted parts of Boston to those in the least polluted parts of the same city. After controlling for all the other confounding variables like socioeconomics, smoking in the home and parental education, the researchers found the difference in the children's IQs averaged nine points. Even more chilling, children in the most polluted parts of Boston breathed cleaner air than most Utah children.

Another new study strengthens the growing connection between air pollution exposure in the womb and in infancy and increased risk for autism. Utah has the highest rates of autism in the country, afflicting one in every 32 Utah boys.

Yet in no corner of state government is any of this making a dent in public policy. Gov. Gary Herbert is poised to accept the inevitable dust bowl/pollution disaster that will be created by the Las Vegas/Snake Valley water grab. He is determined to tie our economic future to the 19th century wagon of boom and bust gas, oil and coal. His upcoming energy summit in January is a game plan for bigger refineries in North Salt Lake, digging up every carbon deposit in the state and burning it with no concern for the climate consequences, the lost water resources, and the smothering pollution that comes with it.

There is never a shortage of state funds for endless, "Los Angeles style" freeway construction and suburban sprawl. Mass transit is a mere afterthought. The state's attempt to seize federal lands under the guise of funding education is utter hypocrisy. The pollution from digging and burning all that federal carbon will undermine anything achieved by smaller class sizes. And now the frosting on the cake: In complete contradiction of the science, the state is selling the idea that "moderate" pollution is not a health concern.

Education is always the buzz word of every legislative session. Air pollution is seldom even a whisper. The quality of the air our children breathe is every bit as important as the quality of the school they attend. Even moderate air pollution diminishes your child's future.

In short, Einstein would not have been Einstein with nine fewer IQ points.

Brian Moench is president of Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment.