Utah’s environmental hazards make it too dangerous for me to stay here

Utah’s environmental hazards make it too dangerous for me to stay here
Utah’s environmental hazards make it too dangerous for me to stay here

Skilled workers from across the country come to Salt Lake City to work and learn, and we must take their environmental concerns seriously to keep them in our local economy.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Air quality in the Salt Lake Valley worsens on Tuesday, November 28, 2023.

Summer brings more than just pleasant weather and longer days. School is out, and family and friends are making memories while enjoying the natural beauty of our state outdoors. Among these students are newly educated and trained graduates eager to make their mark in the professional world. These graduates must now decide where to begin the next chapter of their lives. Will they stay and build their careers locally, or will they prioritize seeking opportunities outside of Utah?

As a biomedical science graduate student in the final years of my education, I have been thinking about these questions in depth. Originally from Wisconsin, I was lured to pursue my graduate studies in Salt Lake City by the abundance of outdoor recreation opportunities and the impressive growth of the biotech sector. However, due to growing concerns about environmental quality, I have seriously considered moving elsewhere after graduation.

From toxic dust storms to harsh winter inversion smog, it’s well known that Salt Lake City has some of the worst air quality in the country. Just last December, our capital city ranked 26th in the world’s worst air quality rankings. But the visible “haze” of air pollution is just the beginning. The health consequences of Utah’s polluted air are particularly concerning, putting both new and longtime residents at risk for serious health complications, including asthma, cardiovascular disease, and lung cancer. A recent study from Brigham Young University reports that Utah residents lose between 1.1 and 3.5 years of life due to poor air quality, with up to 23% of residents losing five years or more.

Acute exposure to air pollution has been shown to increase depression and mental illness and increase suicide risk in Salt Lake County. Air pollution in Utah is also linked to an increase in health problems such as spontaneous abortions and higher rates of asthma. Not surprisingly, emergency room visits in Utah can increase by as much as 40% on days with poor air quality.

But poor air quality is not only a major health problem in Utah, it is also a serious economic problem. According to a recent study, air pollution costs Utah taxpayers an average of $1.9 billion annually in direct costs, such as health care costs, and indirect costs, such as loss of tourism and reduced economic growth.

These studies become even more alarming when you consider recent developments in the state, including reports of carbon-intensive coal-fired power plants abandoning plans to close early and plans for cleaner nuclear power plants. While the EPA’s stricter emissions standards appear to be a major win for the state, our governor recently made the controversial decision to sign a letter expressing his opposition to updated air quality compliance regulations, signaling his opposition to clean air policies.

Given these serious health and economic consequences, it is imperative that Utah policymakers prioritize addressing our unhealthy air quality. Instead of spending energy protesting new air quality regulations, our state leaders must work together intensively and efficiently to determine the best strategies to improve our polluted air. State leaders must invest in new policies, such as the HB279 air quality amendments introduced by Rep. Clancy, which would mandate a 50% reduction in air pollutants in the Wasatch Front by 2033, including harmful particulate matter, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, and nitrogen oxides. Unfortunately, this bill did not pass the House.

Transportation is the largest source of air pollution in Utah. To combat vehicle pollutants, our state must consider measures such as electric vehicle (EV) incentives and stricter idling laws. The EV market is now accessible to families, although cost remains a barrier. Utah can increase its incentives for EVs by modeling programs like Vermont’s, which offers low- and moderate-income residents up to $10,000 to purchase new EVs. In addition, new legislation should require large multifamily properties, such as apartment complexes, to equip at least 50% of their parking spaces with EV charging stations by 2030. Policymakers can work with energy companies like Rocky Mountain Power to extend current EV charger rebates and usage-based incentives to the owners of these large multifamily properties.

While electric vehicle incentives will reduce the use of gasoline-powered vehicles over the next decade, there will still be many gasoline-powered vehicles on Utah’s roads during a transition period, generating unnecessary emissions by idling. Strengthening idling reduction laws can encourage citizens to help reduce idling. Concerned citizens could report improper idling and receive a portion of the fine as a reward, increasing public oversight and generating funds that could be reinvested in electric vehicle incentive projects.

Failure to invest in clean air means failing to invest in the health of Utahns, failing to invest in our future economy, and failing to keep Utah’s talent local. State leaders must work to create a better, cleaner future for our state.

Lorenzo Smith is a doctoral student studying oncology at the University of Utah.

Lorenzo Smith is a PhD student studying oncology at the University of Utah. With his scientific critical thinking skills, Lorenzo is keen to advocate for the best policy initiatives for our state.

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