Not as bad as it was, but not as good as it should be

Salt Lake City’s air quality issues are nothing new. New research out of the University of Utah shows the history of poor air quality in the area, and how certain changes have helped us improve it since the 1880s. 

The researchers discovered that in the 1890’s, factories were built on the west side, to mitigate smoke through the valley. That’s an impact that has had a lasting effect on the make-up of Salt Lake City, and is at the root of environmental justice issues concerning air quality and west side residents. 

Smoke forecast for March 7, 1941. Photo from Salt Lake Telegraph.

That’s not the only thing that’s lingered. The U writes, “Mitchell and Zajchowski found that throughout the state’s history, records indicated a preference for business and industry to address air pollution without a need for government intervention. But sometimes when citizens pushed against industry, the industry pushed back.” They go on to cite examples of time polluting industries released false information in response to studies and concerns that their operations were having a negative impact on local residents. 

“In 1986 the Geneva Steel plant in Utah County closed down operations for 13 months during a labor strike. The closure provided an opportunity for a natural experiment to compare health outcomes in the area during the closure with times when the plant’s smokestacks were in full operation. Studies published in peer-reviewed scientific journals showed that bronchitis and asthma hospital admissions for preschool-age children in Provo were halved during the idle year.

But a Geneva Steel-funded rebuttal study, not subjected to peer review before being released to the public, claimed that the difference in hospitalization rates was due to respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV. This claim was false since the original studies had controlled for RSV rates. But, the authors write, “the disinformation effort to create misleading news coverage had the desired effect of creating an artificial controversy that muddled public understanding of the health impacts of air quality in Utah for years” Paul Gabrielsen writes for the U. 

The lesson to take from the history lesson in the article and research, is that we are in a remarkable position to take action towards meaningful change that can improve the health and quality of life of those along the Wasatch Front. Making the shift towards clean energy, and taking action to halt polluting projects can save lives along the Wasatch Front for decades to come. 

Read more about the history of Utah’s air quality here.