By Laura Schmidt, Sustainability Resource Center
I moved from Lansing, Michigan to Salt Lake City, Utah in August of 2012, ready to start my graduate program in Environmental Humanities.
The following winter, I experienced my first toxic inversion. Inversions are due to the geography and geology of the region, but the air pollution is human-made. Because we’re in a valley here in Salt Lake, bordered by mountains, the cooler air settles near the ground. It stagnates and accumulates all of the toxins like sulfur dioxides, nitrous oxides, particulate matter (PM10), fine particulate matter (PM2.5), and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that come from the combustion of fossil fuels. This mix of inhalants and air is held in place by a somewhat warmer layer of air, acting like the lid of a jar. (See also “Winter Inversions: What Are They and What We Can All Do To Help”.) We, oxygen-requiring beings, breathe in this cauldron of toxins until high winds or a storm upsets the inversion. Then the process starts again. The cycle continues until winter is over.
Because I breathed in this toxic air, I became sluggish, my throat and ears hurt, and my nose was full of blood almost every day. Little was done to mitigate the air pollution. This winter, the inversion (as expected) came back. So, too, did the toxins in the air. And again, I felt the effects in my body. I saw, and tasted, the air.
I got frustrated because it seemed like no one was taking this problem seriously. (Note: Outdoor air pollution is a known carcinogen!!)
Needing a break from the oppressive air, I went to Emigration Canyon. While there, I took a photo of the air that I (and many others) breathe.
While checking Facebook one day, I saw that the group, “Clean Air Now!” (along with other groups) was hosting a “Clean Air, No Excuses” rally at the Capitol on Jan. 25. Timely, considering that just last week, northern Utah had the worst air quality in the nation. There was no way I was going to miss the opportunity to participate in a rally focused on our air pollution!
So, I arrived on the Capitol grounds by noon on the 25th and rallied alongside thousands of other concerned people.
The rally had plenty of speakers and singers, and about 5,000 people showed up. Members of Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment and Utah Moms for Clean Air spoke, as well as the legal team from Erin Brockovich and Salt Lake City’s Mayor Becker. (Check out this link to see who else was there: “Music and Levity Make Utah Environmental Conundrum More Bearable at America’s Largest-Ever Air Pollution Protest“.)
There were some people with signs, most with masks, and a few with their small children and/or pets.
The rally was aimed at getting the attention of the Utah Legislature, who were about to start their yearly session. Those who rallied wanted to make a statement that enough is enough, the people (and therefore the economy) of the area are suffering because of the terrible air quality.
I walked away Saturday afternoon feeling that I’m not alone—thousands of others are sick of breathing the toxins, too! However, this rally is just an initial action to clear up our air. We (you, me, everyone in this valley!) have to continue to do our part to help. Drive less (seriously, drive less). Follow legislation about clean air. Use your voice; talk to your legislators. Utah Public Radio also has a wonderful article that can help you become more involved. Consider doing it for the sake of our bodies, our physical and mental health, our economy, and the beauty of this valley.
Laura Schmidt is a graduate student in Environmental Humanities. She is a graduate assistant in the Office of Sustainability.