Science, medicine and public policymakers converged Monday to better understand Utah's air pollution and possibly come up with ways to solve it.
The inaugural Air Quality, Health and Society retreat at the University of Utah was part pep rally, part brainstorming session. More than 100 attended, including engineers and doctors and regulators and clean-air advocates.
Brigham Young University's C. Arden Pope, a world expert on the link between pollution and its health impacts, encouraged the kind of interdisciplinary approach the retreat was intended to foster. He titled his talk: Air Pollution and Human Health: Science, Controversy and Public Policy.
"It's incredibly important we do the [scientific] work and do it well," he said. "We do a disservice, especially here along the Wasatch Front, if we overstate our air pollution problems."
"Our pollution is as bad as any place in the country when it's bad, but it's as good as any place in the country when it's good."
And, even with thousands of studies analyzing that link, Utah's unique situation makes it a great laboratory for studying pollution and the harm it causes, he said.
Monday's day-long program was the brainchild of Utah Air Quality Board members Kerry Kelly and Robert Paine. Kelly, a chemical engineer, and Paine, chief of pulmonary medicine at the U., wondered why different types of air-pollution experts aren't putting their heads together.
"Short term, we'd like to see some collaborations," said Kelly. "The longer-term goal is that Utah is recognized as a place to go to study pollution. It's challenging to find solutions, and hopefully we can help."
Speakers on Monday talked about pollution's effects on the young and those already sick. They addressed the complex chemistry of pollution in the air and in human cells. They talked about its economic impacts.
Pope reminded the group how his pollution-watching career began: He tracked what happened in local hospitals when the Geneva Steel mill near Orem was operating and when it was shut down. The links he found then have been confirmed and expanded upon in thousands of studies around the world.
He also testified before state legislators last fall about the benefits of reducing air pollution. An economist, he told how every dollar spent on cutting air pollution yields around $10 in savings because health-care costs go down, premature deaths decrease and other measurable savings are realized.