Provo’s polluted past

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Utah Valley’s history of pollution leads Linda Clark to wonder, has Utah learned from the past or is it doomed to repeat it?

“Science has proven that air and water pollution are poisons and they shorten our lives,” said Clark, a long-time resident of Utah Valley and heavily involved in environmental issues. “Now that I’m 65, there’s urgency in that statement. I come from long-lived genes. I’d like to enjoy good health to a ripe old age, enjoying my posterity and serving our community. Cutting five  years off my life is not acceptable so industries can dump their waste into my lungs.”

As Clark continued to talk about the science behind the Utah air pollution, she made references to BYU Professor of economics C. Arden Pope, who in 2007 was awarded the Karl G. Maeser award. Pope is world renowned for his research on the effects of particulate air pollution on mortality and health. His research established the connections between air pollution and health problems, including cancer, cardiovascular and pulmonary disease, as well as influenced environmental policies in the U.S. and in Europe.

“Arden Pope, international expert on air pollution, explains that air pollution causes death and an earlier one for all of us,” Clark said. “That’s one reason I care about air pollution.”

Pope published a paper early in his career titled “Respiratory hospital admissions associated with PM10 pollution in Utah, Salt Lake, and Cache Valleys.” The paper came as a result of the temporary closure of the Geneva Steel mill located in Vineyard, UT. Pope compiled hospital admissions data for the time before, during, and after the temporary closing of the mill and was the first to convincingly show the immediate health harms associated with pollution particulates in the air.

An excerpt from the paper reads:

“This study assessed the association between respiratory hospital admissions and PM10 pollution in Utah, Salt Lake, and Cache valleys during April 1985 through March 1989. Utah and Salt Lake valleys had high levels of PM10 pollution that violated both the annual and 24-h standards issued by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Much lower PM10 levels occurred in the Cache Valley. Utah Valley experienced the intermittent operation of its primary source of PM10 pollution: an integrated steel mill. Bronchitis and asthma admissions for preschool-age children were approximately twice as frequent in Utah Valley when the steel mill was operating versus when it was not. Similar differences were not observed in Salt Lake or Cache valleys. Even though Cache Valley had higher smoking rates and lower temperatures in winter than did Utah Valley, per capita bronchitis and asthma admissions for all ages were approximately twice as high in Utah Valley. During the period when the steel mill was closed, differences in per capita admissions between Utah and Cache valleys narrowed considerably. Regression analysis also demonstrated a statistical association between respiratory hospital admissions and PM10 pollution. The results suggest that PM10 pollution plays a role in the incidence and severity of respiratory disease.”

Clark stated that the economy is improved by cleaning up air pollution. “We attract high-paying clean industries,” she said, “which pay people well and employees pay more taxes than they demand of services. Then we have more money to put on education.”

The concern for the air in Utah Valley has even sparked websites such as Utah Moms for Clean Air, founded by Cherise Miller Udell.

“On red alert days (I) felt as if (I) was locking (my) babies in a windowless room full of chain smokers,” Udell wrote on her website. She wrote letters to other moms asking them to join her in making Utah’s air cleaner and safer for their children.

In Utah Valley, when Pope was doing his research regarding Geneva Steel, he found that when the mill was shut down there was a substantial drop in pediatric respiratory hospital admissions. When it reopened, Pope found that admissions went right back to what they were before. His research was controversial for the time.

“Utah Valley is certainly cleaner now than it was then,” Pope said. “It turns out that there is no level of air pollution, that it’s clear there are no health effects. Obviously, the more pollution, the bigger the health effects and the less pollution, the less the effects are. So, we still have effects at this level of pollution, they just aren’t as bad as they were back then.”

Pope worked with a group at Harvard, conducting “perspective cohort studies” where they looked at exposure to air pollution across the U.S. and the risks of dying of respiratory and cardiovascular disease.

“We thought naively, when we started, that air pollution only impacts respiratory disease,” Pope said. “But it turned out to impact both respiratory and cardiovascular disease.” He went on to say how a causal association between exposure to air pollution and an increased risks to both those diseases has been fully demonstrated.

“Now, we’re trying to understand the physiology of why it happens and how it happens,” he said, “and how can we reduce our risks from air pollution, through various interventions, obviously through trying to clean it up.”

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