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Op-ed: I'm feeling sick about Utah's toxic air

Smog covers Salt Lake City as an inversion lingers on Wednesday, Jan. 18, 2017.
Smog covers Salt Lake City as an inversion lingers on Wednesday, Jan. 18, 2017.
Ravell Call, Deseret News

I was raised to count my blessings, but I admit I’ve taken fresh air for granted until recently. My fiancé jokes that my respiratory system is more dependable than our air quality monitors. My usual pollution symptoms (sore throat, congestion and a deep barking cough) manifest themselves anytime our air pollution reaches the upper levels of yellow on the air pollution scale.

By the time our air quality alerts hit orange (“unhealthy for sensitive groups”) I feel sick with the flu. In addition to the respiratory issues and sore throat, I get body aches.

I’ve called in sick twice this summer because I believed I had an actual flu. On those same days, several co-workers called in sick with similar symptoms.

At first, we blamed it on “something going around.” But luckily or unluckily, we’ve had enough bad air quality days this summer that the pattern is inarguable. We’re not all sick yet again. Our bodies are protesting the poison we’re breathing.

I love Salt Lake City. I’m a native Michigander, but I’ve traveled much of the country and lived in several different states. No place has ever felt more like home than Salt Lake City. I rave about the city and its residents to my friends and family all over the country.

I can’t get enough of the mountains, the live music scene, the nonprofits, the food, the breweries, the people and the kindness. This may be the only city in the world where I could forget my purse at a bar and have a stranger email me to coordinate plans for returning it.

Still, I’m seriously considering moving because of the toxic air that plagues northern Utah. It breaks my heart. I hate the thought of relocating because of a problem that has viable solutions. I’m disheartened by the political inaction I’ve seen.

I’ve been here two years now – two winters and two summers. Nearly half of my year is spent concerned with congested lungs and headaches from either PM2.5 or ozone pollution.

I’m not the only one experiencing these problems. Many have already moved to another state. Some wonder where their asthma came from. Others brush off their symptoms as a simple sickness. What will it take to gain political traction to make meaningful change in our air quality problem and keep people healthy?

Individual actions help, without a doubt. Trip chaining, using alternative transportation before an inversion sets in and carpooling can help reduce pollution. But I can’t help but notice that each of these suggestions put the onus on a single person and deflects from the larger systemic issues we’re facing. We live in a bowl where the air stagnates for parts of the year. Our population is projected to double in a matter of years.

We need bold action by our state policymakers and regulators. With the 2018 legislative quickly approaching and the State Implementation Plan being formulated, there is no excuse for shirking the air pollution problem solely onto individuals. Utah’s people are suffering, and we have solutions at hand to mitigate it.

Common-sense solutions include, but are not limited to, the legislature passing a bill requiring emissions testing for diesel vehicles in areas out of compliance for PM2.5 (just as gasoline-powered vehicles are required to do) or quickly phasing out lawn and garden equipment with two-stroke engines in favor of those that are electric-powered.

Those of us sensitive to air pollution are the proverbial canaries in a coal mine. We are indicators for what will happen to everyone if our policymakers and regulators continue to drag their feet instead of being proactive. More people will move. More will get sick. More will die. Clean air is not a political issue; it’s a matter of life and death. It’s time to implement courageous and pragmatic solutions to Utah’s air quality problem.

Aimee Lewis holds an MFA from Georgia College & State University. She loves being outdoors and living in SLC with her fiancÉ and their miniature zoo.