Facebook Twitter

Air quality takes a village

SHARE Air quality takes a village

Earlier this week, Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment launched a campaign centered on the health concerns related to air pollution. The group says air pollution sickens many Utahns and kills some 1,000 people a year. This crisis, they say, could potentially become a catastrophe.

Medical research clearly ties air pollution exposure, even episodic exposure, to certain respiratory and heart ailments. Such research spurred the Environmental Protection Agency to hand down tougher air quality standards, which recently went into effect. But the prognostications of this physicians group need to be examined in context. Utah's air quality has improved over the past three decades, largely due to federal regulation of industrial and motor vehicle emissions. It's cleaner despite a marked increase in motor vehicle miles traveled. Most of the time, Utah's air quality is excellent, occasional winter inversions and summertime buildups of ozone notwithstanding.

The physicians group recommends putting bans on coal-fired power plants, improving mass transit, requiring freeway drivers to drive at 55 mph on smoggy days and asking school bus drivers not to idle buses in school yards while waiting for students. Some of these suggestions have considerable merit, such as increasing mass transit usage and imposing slower freeway driving speeds on smoggy days. Some Utah school districts have already begun to switch their school bus fleets to cleaner fuels such as natural gas and bio-diesel. Others have implemented idle-reduction policies.

Barring electrical production from coal is more problematic. What are the realistic alternatives? Nuclear energy will play a larger role in the future, but for the time being, there is no waste-stream solution. Moreover, American electrical consumers will not tolerate supply interruptions. Yes, utilities should be looking for alternatives, but for the foreseeable future, coal — with very stringent emissions controls — will do the heavy lifting in energy production.

There is clearly room for Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment to work with policymakers — federal, state and local — to help develop policies that protect health and the environment and address energy and transportation needs. There is clearly a need for more incentives that encourage clean air and energy conservation. There may also be a need for higher fuel taxes or increased motor vehicle registration fees to help curb the number of vehicles on the road.

Keeping the air clean depends greatly upon personal choices — what cars we drive, whether we use mass transit or carpool, or if we choose to burn wood in our fireplaces. Government policies can only go so far. It will take a village to further address our air quality and accompanying health issues.