A few years ago, I wrote about the efforts of Dr. Brian Moench, founder of Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment (UPHE), and the work he was doing to protect the residents of his state from the air pollution challenges they were facing.
Things weren’t great then.
Utah, like areas of Pennsylvania and California (including Los Angeles,) is specifically at risk for the issue known as inversion. This happens during the winter season to land areas surrounded by hills or mountains, which act as a barrier to potentially cleansing winds. The result is a locked-in combination of a low layer of cold air mixed with airborne particulate matter, trapped under an overlay of warmer air. All of that gets worse with snow, which helps to trap cold air close to the ground and make air pollution unable to disperse. This yields a higher level of pollution at ground level.
Now, those problems have been compounded by an additional factor: COVID-19.
I reached out again to Dr. Moench, who is knowledgeable, passionate, and able to break down complex information. He is also a father and a grandfather concerned about the future.
When we spoke by telephone, he first sketched out the political landscape in Utah.
“Utah is a conservative state,” Dr. Moench said, noting that half of the elected officials were “science deniers.” He stated that Sen. Mitt Romney did acknowledge the “climate crisis,” but added that Sen. Mike Lee was the “worst of the worst.” Dr. Moench specifically doesn’t use the term global warming, because he believes it does not convey the full consequences of the prevailing threat. Now, Dr. Moench expects that “Biden is going to apply more than rhetoric.”
In explaining the connection between air pollution and COVID-19, Dr. Moench stated, “Air pollution increases the transmissibility, severity, and lethality of COVID-19 because the virus can attach itself to air pollution particles. It then travels wherever that air pollution particulate matter goes.”
Serious COVID is the inflammation of the blood vessels. This is what air pollution does in the body as well.
Exposure to chronic air pollution means exposure on a regular basis. Inversion causes what is termed as an acute episode of air pollution. Dr. Moench said, “When inversion is added into the mix of chronic exposure to air pollution, this acute exposure makes the chronic exposure acutely worse.”
Utah is very urbanized. 80 percent of the pollution is on the west side of the Wasatch front. He added that four or five cities are considered “pollution inversion cities.”
“Environmental justice is important in Salt Lake City,” Dr. Moench told me. Even though 88 percent of the state is white, inequities are connected to economic disadvantages, rather than race. “The west side of the city is where all the industrial pollution is,” he said. “School districts suffer.” Now, on top of that, residents are pushing back against a proposed inland port that would make pollution even worse, impact natural habitats for over millions of migratory birds, and damage the Great Salt Lake ecosystem. Dr. Moench believes that 270,000 people could be impacted.
The Salt Lake City-Provo-Orem vicinity is consistently on the American Lung Association’s radar for high ozone, annual particle pollution, and 24-hour particle pollution (ranked 7). Additionally, the area is dealing with fugitive dust from the Rio Tinto copper mine. The facility has been in violation of the 2.5 particulate matter standards for over fifteen years, due to the pollution spikes brought on by inversions.
Dr. Moench pointed out that state agencies don’t have a strategy for oversight, and the reason is simple: “Industries that pollute are given a pass by politicians whose priorities are more geared to the business community over public health.”
Hazardous Air Pollutants (HAPS) are gases, particulate matter, chemicals and gases. When chemicals attach to tiny particles, this creates the greatest devastation and the most damage is done. Particles are inhaled and distributed by the blood stream.
The narrative ends up landing with the most vulnerable – infants and children.
Dr. Moench underscored that chronic air pollution exposure triggers a low-grade inflammatory response in all the body’s critical organs, including a pregnant mother’s placenta. In utero, fetal organ development is impacted. During childhood (0-19 years), permanent harm takes place as organ growth continues to be restricted.
To drive his point home, Dr. Moench offered this analogy: “Think of a kid starting to smoke at 2 years of age. Their lung capacity is never fully developed.”
It’s not an encouraging hypothesis.