By Laura Schmidt, Sustainability Resource Center
Every day, I breathe the air in Salt Lake City. Some days, the air quality is worse than others. Some days, the toxic air problems in the Wasatch Front have been compared to that of Beijing, China. (For more comparisons, check out the Beijing-SLC Connect website.)
As I write these words, the level of PM 2.5 in Salt Lake City is 52.2µg/m3, which is high enough to affect sensitive people in the population. The inhalation of fine particulate matter is known to cause ill health effects like diabetes, increased cardiovascular illness, lung disease, and premature death. PM 2.5 isn’t the only toxin we Salt Lakers have to deal with; we’re also exposed to ozone (O2), Nitrogen dioxide (NO2), Sulfur dioxide (SO2), Carbon monoxide (CO), and PM 10.
Yesterday, Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker gave his “State of the City Address” at the Tower at Rice Eccles Stadium. The room was packed—the people of Salt Lake City came to hear how Mayor Becker was going to address the toxic air. Becker said that our physical and mental health, as well as the local economy, are all affected by the hazardous air quality. There are reports of some highly-skilled people choosing not to take jobs in the city and some eventually move out of the Wasatch Front because of our air. Carcinogenic air isn’t really a selling point for professionals looking to settle down long term.
“The irony of this valley is that the very same mountains that bring us accolades and tourism dollars also form the container that collects and holds our dirty air. Our mountains are not movable, but we are. Our actions can change. They must. I think we would all agree we’re at the point where enough is enough,” said Mayor Becker.
Becker tactfully addressed the negative aspects of living in a city where the winters are overtaken by toxic air, but instead of focusing on those negatives, the mayor proposed solutions. He suggested behavior changes for local residents, and changes to the city and the state of Utah. To see the variety of solutions, read the transcript of Becker’s talk.
The most powerful part of Mayor Becker’s speech was his insistence that if the state government refuses to help us clean up our air by doing things like providing more funding for public transit, enforcing stricter air quality standards, and creating stronger regulations on driving and industry, it should give control to local governments. “We at the local level can get it done,” he said. Salt Lake City has already taken strides to reduce the air pollution, and Becker says the city will also:
- Raise our minimum standard for new and renovated municipal building construction to LEED Gold through an executive order, effective immediately;
- Commence a city-wide program to evaluate the energy use of large commercial buildings, and provide building owners assistance to complete energy efficiency upgrades that will save them energy and money;
- Develop tailpipe emissions-reduction plans for all of our City Departments; and
- Build, over the next 5 to 10 years, the most energy efficient airport terminal in the country.
What I hear when he says those words is that the people of Salt Lake deserve better. We deserve clean air, and if the state government won’t take us seriously, it’s up to us to challenge the status quo.
Mayor Becker concluded his speech with a call to action: “We have the ability to change our ways so that we can keep Utah beautiful. People start pollution, people can stop it. And we can do it together. I absolutely believe that. As Wallace Stegner said, ‘One cannot be pessimistic about the West. This is the native home of hope. When it fully learns that cooperation is the quality that most characterizes and preserves it, then it has a chance to create a society to match its scenery.’”
The mayor’s optimism helps me feel optimistic that we don’t have to keep breathing air that is detrimental to our bodies and minds. I have had enough of the polluted inversion; we have had enough of it. It’s time to take the problem seriously. Let’s work together to drive less, carpool, take public transit, stop our cars from idling, and walk or ride our bikes (see also: “Ways to Reduce Air Pollution“). It is also in our power, as citizens of this city, to lobby our legislators and let them know that we’re sick (literally and figuratively) of the toxic air. As Mayor Becker says, enough is enough. We can solve the problem together.
Laura Schmidt is a graduate student in Environmental Humanities. She is a graduate assistant in the Office of Sustainability.