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Opinion: The toxic tale of the Great Salt Lake

The Great Salt Lake is shrinking, and toxic metals contained in the exposed lakebed — cancer-causing toxins — are blown toward us with every dust storm

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The Great Salt Lake with exposed lakebed near Antelope Island on a sunny, blue-sky day.

The Great Salt Lake is shrinking and receding from Antelope Island and other shores, endangering wildlife and Salt Lake County residents. Toxic metals found in the lakebed and carried through dust storms pose a dangerous health crisis.

Rick Bowmer, Associated Press

If the Great Salt Lake, which has already shrunk by two-thirds, continues to dry up, Utahns will face a catastrophe which Republican state Rep. Sen. Joel Ferry, R-Brigham City, likens to a “potential environmental nuclear bomb.” 

Instead of being a source of life, the Great Salt Lake can act as a reservoir of toxic metals. Once airborne, these toxins can act as death clouds exposing our thriving communities and economy to debilitating environmental, health and financial costs.  

A shrinking lake exposes chilling news

According to the U.S. Geological Survey, the Great Salt Lake’s surface area has shrunk by two-thirds since the 1980s. As the lake and its surrounding wetlands disappear, a vital ecosystem for aquatic beings — such as brine shrimp — as well as millions of migratory birds face imminent desolation. But that’s not all. The desiccation of the Great Salt Lake demands that we confront a lethal threat to the health of millions of Utahns that we ignore at our peril.   

In a groundbreaking study, Kevin Perry, professor of atmospheric sciences at the University of Utah, collected 16,000 soil samples from the lakebed. The results are chilling. They indicate a high concentration of nine toxic metals including arsenic. 

The toxins appear in areas associated with anthropogenic activities such as the discharge of industrial and agricultural effluents. A study by the school of medicine at University of Utah, found that arsenic and lead have significantly increased in the lakebed sediment due to drying up the lake since the 1980s.

These toxins are carcinogenic. They had been covered or dissolved in the lake’s water. With the lake’s shrinkage, these toxins are getting exposed. Winds that commonly blow toward the south and southeast of the lake carry toxic particles previously buried in the lake’s basin and dump them on the capital of Utah.  

A repeating story from the Middle East

Climate change and environmental catastrophes are not unique to Utah. 

For example, the Urmia Lake, the largest lake in the Middle East and the second hypersaline lake in the world, has been shrinking, endangering an invaluable ecosystem housing various animal and plant species in northern Iran. Urmia Lake’s water surface level has decreased 4 meters since 2000 due to drought and anthropogenic activities, including damming of the local rivers. This has resulted in its hyper-salinization.

The Urmia Lake’s surface area has shrunk by 34.5% from 1990 to 2020 and has changed to the playas — dry, flat, and vegetation-free areas sensitive to wind erosion. The playas have become a primary regional dust source. The dried-up areas have formed eight billion tons of salt. The deposition of salt dust in agricultural lands up to hundreds of miles around the lake has had devastating effects.  

In addition to salt, toxic metals have been threatening the health of Urmia Lake basin — home to more than 5 million people. According to scientific research, the level of arsenic concentration in the Urmia lakebed is very high. There has been a 30% increase in skin cancer cases among people in the surrounding areas.

The increase in skin cancer is strongly correlated with arsenic concentration, originating from dust storms. According to Iran’s Ministry of Health, dust storms from dried lakebeds are responsible for dramatically increasing incidences of hypertension, cardiovascular, respiratory disorders, vision problems and death around Urmia Lake. 

For all intents and purposes, the case of Urmia Lake should serve as a warning bell for the Great Salt Lake.

A toxic threat veiled in dust

In Utah, dust storms frequently occur in Salt Lake County. They originate from the lake and surrounding playas and affect hundreds of miles around the lake. They cause potential negative impacts on air quality and human health due to the transport of toxic metals to urban areas. The particles can spread through the surfaces of Salt Lake County and deposit on streets, buildings, schools and parks. 

Toxic metals bound to dust particles can enter the human body through ingestion, inhalation and skin absorption, resulting in several diseases. Arsenic and other toxic metals accumulate in the human body, including in blood, fatty tissues, hair, nails and teeth.

Due to the high toxicity and nondegradability, toxic metals in urban dust can pose detrimental effects to human health, including carcinogenic diseases (i.e., skin cancer, lung cancer, kidney cancer) and noncarcinogenic problems (i.e., damage to the central nervous and human circulatory systems, anemia, gastrointestinal disorders) caused by chronic and excessive exposure. 

A chance to act

As Ferry has stressed, the time for Utahns to confront this threat is now. Much can be done to build on Perry’s foundational study.

A key priority should be to detect, control and alleviate the toxic metal pollution beyond the lakebed, in Salt Lake County. The cancer and respiratory risks and costs alone can be immense. Virtually all sectors of our economy and society — state and local government, agriculture, manufacturing, tourism, insurance, military — have a stake in reversing the desiccation of the Great Salt Lake. The water levels do more than protect brine shrimp and wildlife. They keep a lid on an arsenal of toxic metals — a genie that once released out of the lakebed and into the atmosphere can wreak havoc on our city and state’s health and prosperity for generations to come.  

In the short term, it is essential to conduct further research on dust pollution and associated risk of cancer in the urban areas of Salt Lake County. In the long term, the only way to keep people safe from toxic pollutants is through a shift in our models of governance and measures of growth. All of us stand to benefit from an ecological vision of the future — an integrated vision of growth that does not come at the price of our health.  No matter what the state of our national politics, to Utahns, the Great Salt Lake remains a source of life, a majestic body of water that retains the power to connect us all. 

​Hamed Haghnazar is research associate at the Department of Watershed Sciences, Quinney College of Natural Resources at Utah State University.  

Amir Soltani, a human rights activist and author, is the former executive director of the Semnani Family Foundation.