July 10, 2014

Air Quality: Let’s Get Going!

A few years ago, my son asked me if he was being an irresponsible father to Oliver and Amelia for not moving to Summit County rather than expose them to the poor air quality along the Wasatch Front. Suddenly, this wasn’t an abstract policy issue to me. They and other children should be able to breathe fresh air and not impair their health out-of-doors. Nor should their cousins Abby and Molly, who suffer from asthma, have their health compromised because of where they live.

We give air quality heightened attention during winter inversions, which trap emissions that would generally disperse into the larger atmosphere. When you fly or drive out of an inversion, the lid on the smog and pollution is clearly visible. This leaves a bad impression with tourists and gives the ski and tourism industries a case of nerves. Government and business leaders worry we will fail air quality standards, which brings federal sanctions and limits growth. First and foremost, we all worry about the impacts on our health.

The most harmful air pollutants are dangerous to everyone, especially over time. They are particularly dangerous for children, the elderly, people with heart or pulmonary weakness, and those who exercise vigorously outdoors.

Air quality has suddenly jumped the political track. Happily, it’s not a Democrat vs. Republican issue or an environmental vs. development issue. Concern comes from all quarters. To compound the problem, we’ll add about 1.6 million new citizens to Weber, Davis, Salt Lake and Utah Counties in the next thirty years. Poor air quality will retard that growth and impair the unmatched lifestyle we enjoy in Utah. To avoid these effects, we must plan wisely now and build prudently in the future.

The first thing we all must do is recognize that the biggest sources of pollutants are not the usual suspects: it’s cars, cars, cars. Vehicles generate nearly half of air pollutants. In other words, as usual, it’s about you and me. Our collective prudence and sacrifice or our collective selfishness and indulgence will combine to create our air quality and Utah’s future.

There is much to cheer about. Our transit system is second to none. Ridership is up and increasing. New car and truck air quality standards will reduce some of the worst pollutants, including the very harmful PM2.5 particles. As we replace our older cars and trucks with cleaner vehicles, some pollutants will decrease. Electric, CNG and hybrid cars and buses are becoming more common. Future transportation projects will integrate as many modes of travel as possible, including bikes and walking. New traffic control systems keep traffic flowing smoothly with fewer stops. Anti-idling laws recognize that engines are far less efficient when idling than driving. UTA is bringing more CNG buses into their fleet and testing an electric bus that re-charges wirelessly at bus stops.

What can you do? Walk or ride your bike somewhere instead of driving, ride TRAX into the city to work when you can or to a cultural event, carpool even occasionally, get a more efficient furnace, have Questar do an energy audit on your home, buy a hybrid or CNG car, combine your trips for errands, don’t idle or warm up your car, conserve electricity and gas, telecommute to a meeting with Skype, ask your employer for a transit pass in lieu of parking. Try to live near your work.

In a recent letter to the editor, a woman urged all of us to ride transit as a great way to address air quality. She ended with this gem, “I would ride transit if it were convenient.” That, Madam, is the problem. Each of us wants good air quality, but at the inconvenience of the other guy. The real solution is for all of us to do our part, even something a little inconvenient.

Let’s get going!

By Greg Bell, President/CEO of the Utah Hospital Association

More in this category: UHA 2018 Annual Membership Meeting »