Air pollution introduced as a cause of death, pending adoption of H.B. 109

Hang gliders jump off Y Mountain. During the winter, cold air traps pollution in Utah Valley, causing inversion that recent studies show have been negatively impact Utahns’ health. (Ashley Pun Eveson)

Utah environmental organizations are teaming up with state legislators to allow medical professionals to list air pollution as a formal cause of death on a death certificate.

Meisei Gonzalez, a volunteer at the Healthy Environment Alliance of Utah, is working with scientists and legislators to help support H.B. 109, a bill which was introduced into the House of Representatives on Jan. 18.  

H.B. 109 is sponsored by Rep. Stephen Handy, R-Layton and will allow air pollution to be listed as a deceased person’s cause of death by medical professionals.

“We’re looking at that bill to get it supported and approved because it’s going to give us more data to really understand how severe air quality is affecting people,” Gonzalez said. 

A study done by the Ben Abbott Lab of Ecosystem Ecology in 2020 found air pollution shortens the life of the average Utahn by two years.

The study, called “Human Health and the Economic Costs of Air Pollution in Utah,” was published in the scientific journal “Atmosphere.” It was primarily led by Isabella Errigo, a BYU graduate student studying environmental science. She wanted to focus on studying the effects of air pollution specifically in Utah. 

“I’ve always been really interested in environmental issues and how they affect humans,” Errigo said. “When I started reading about it, I only found numbers at the global level about how it affects your health, but there was nothing at the state level.” 

Errigo became concerned with air pollution after she moved to Utah for school. “I grew up in Chicago and there’s way more people there, and it’s a way more condensed space, but you never see pollution like you see it in Utah,” Errigo said. 

There were four findings the study highlighted: Air pollution shortens the life of the average Utahn by two years, air pollution costs Utah’s economy an average of $1.8 billion annually, fossil fuel pollution causes or worsens many illnesses and conditions in Utah and there are many state-level actions that could reduce air pollution while benefiting the economy.

“With this bill, we’ll be able to get those numbers and look at them from an environmental justice perspective,” Gonzalez said. “So we can start pinpointing and saying, ‘Why is this air quality affecting this community so much more than this other community?’” 

Utah Department of Environmental Quality’s annual air quality report shows air pollution in Utah has improved over the few decades. This department is run by people such as Bo Call, the manager of Air Quality Monitoring.

“There is a heightened awareness around the issue because of our smartphones, which is a good thing, but people are less aware that the air is actually getting a lot better and cleaner from year to year,” he said. The department developed an app for residents called Utah Air, which can help people track pollution and make better choices concerning air quality.

By following the federal air quality standards and adjusting them to the state level, the Utah Department of Environmental Quality works on monitoring the problem and focusing on where the pollution is really coming from.

In addition to the Department of Environmental Quality, other organizations like Envision Utah are also working with the government to raise more awareness about air pollution and its sources.

Their campaign “Your Air Your Utah” was created and commissioned by Rocky Mountain Power to help educate individuals, governments and businesses about air pollution in Utah.

Cody Lutz, campaign manager, said Rocky Mountain Power “found that they were having people come to them, wanting to know how they could save money on their utilities and improve air quality.” 

The website features different ways everyone in Utah can get involved, at different levels. The idea was developed from Provo’s Clean Air Kit and involved different specialists.

“We developed a steering committee of air quality experts in Utah to brainstorm about what should go in it. Then we worked with a web design company to do all the visual graphics, and we developed the text and the content,” Lutz said. “Everyone can make a difference. You can’t have just individuals working on it without the other two — businesses and government — or vice versa.” 

Although some people might look to the government and organizations to fix air pollution, the real issue is more complex and reliant on individuals.

Inversion makes it difficult to see the mountains through the visible air pollution in Utah Valley. Recent studies show air pollution has a negative effect on people’s health. (Made in Illustrator by Ashley Pun Eveson)

“We all drive cars, and so we are all part of the problem,” Call said.

H.B. 109 would provide funding to gather more data about those who died from air pollution-related causes and would potentially raise more awareness about the environmental issue of air pollution in Utah.

Even with the bill’s introduction into the House of Representatives and working with politicians and scientists, Errigo said more action needs to be taken. 

“It’s about making people realize what a big issue it is, so they want to make those changes. Getting doctors to be able to put air pollution as a cause of death is a step in the right direction,” she said. “We should be communicating to our legislators that this is something we care about so that they, who are supposed to represent us, can make decisions that actually represent the population.” 

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