As I write this, despite five room air purifiers going full blast, my well-sealed home still smells like smoke, as it has for most of the summer; in fact for much of the last three summers.
During that time you can count on one hand the total number of green air quality days we’ve had in the Salt Lake Valley. We are entering a dangerous era where air pollution is the new normal, and clean air is an aberration. There are four reasons behind this unmistakable trend, all of which will be exacerbated by the new inland port and its satellite network intended to increase our fossil fuel exports.
1. More transportation pollution—trains, planes, automobiles, and diesel trucks. If built to capacity, urban planning models suggest that the Utah inland port will create 70,000 new daily semi-truck trips on our freeways, and 150,000 more cars. There will be dozens of new trains and “switchers” with heavily polluting diesel locomotive engines, each emitting the equivalent of tens of thousands of cars, and untold more air traffic.
2. Wildfire smoke is the most toxic type of pollution the average person ever inhales. Hotter temperatures, relentless drought, and disruption of weather patterns are increasing wildfires on every continent, even above the Arctic Circle, and the smoke is spread globally. Burning more of Utah’s fossil fuels in the atmosphere thanks to the inland port will pour gasoline almost literally on those fires.
3. Increasing ozone is a planet-wide plague, again related to rising atmospheric temperatures and the release of ozone precursors from wildfires and industrial sources.
4. More dust from drying lake beds, especially the disappearing Great Salt Lake, and from intense inland port construction activity, which will go on for at least 25 more years and is already a major new source of Salt Lake Valley dust. The inland port will be a booster shot to all these new air pollution sources.
Air pollution does virtually all the same things as smoking cigarettes, even at levels far below the smothering wildfire smoke we have been inhaling this summer. First and foremost, it kills people. Air pollution from fossil fuels already causes one in every five deaths worldwide. BYU research estimates that in Utah between 2,480 and 8,000 people die prematurely every year due to our air pollution.
Who are the people succumbing to air pollution? In addition to the usual suspects, high-risk individuals with the pre-existing conditions, the victims also include people you might not suspect.
They include people like me who, despite overall good health, has an anatomic anomaly that creates life-threatening arterial blood clots which already put me in the ICU for a weekend during one of our pollution spikes. And people like my wife, who just had urgent surgery. The air pollution will make her recovery more precarious and increase her risk of complications, such as infection, pneumonia, and blood clots.
It includes people like the six men and women in my immediate family who are cancer survivors and for whom air pollution statistically decreases their chances of survival. It includes hoped-for grandchildren, because I have daughters-in-law under going in vitro fertilization. Air pollution decreases the success rate of IVF, and, across the board, increases the risk for poor outcomes for all pregnant women, including miscarriage, premature birth, birth defects, still birth, and overall perinatal mortality.
Tens of thousands of Utahns face risks from air pollution similar to my family. And all those risk factors are already disproportionately prevalent on the West side, the same community destined to suffer the brunt of the new port pollution. Even if no one in your family faces these risks and has no symptoms from our air pollution, it still accelerates the aging process and shortens their life spans by an average of about two years.
We’re no longer living in the world we used to know. We face a new and more perilous future on multiple fronts, including much more air pollution. Much of that is climate related and self-inflicted. The inland port is a modern-day Trojan horse crafted by powerful legislators under the pretense of an economic bonanza. If we allow it to enter our gates it will make Salt Lake City a much more hazardous and hostile place to live for generations to come.
Dr. Brian Moench is president of Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment