Air pollution introduced as cause of death, pending adoption of HB 109

Hang gliders jump from Mount Y. During the winter, cold air traps pollution in the Utah Valley, causing an inversion that recent studies have shown has negatively impacted the health of Utah residents. Utah. (Ashley Pun Eveson)

Utah environmental organizations are teaming up with lawmakers to allow medical professionals to list air pollution as an official cause of death on a death certificate.

Meisei Gonzalez, a volunteer with the Healthy Environment Alliance of Utah, is working with scientists and lawmakers to help support HB 109, a bill that was introduced in the House of Representatives on January 18.

HB 109 is supported by Rep. Stephen Handy, R-Layton and will allow air pollution to be listed as a cause of death for a deceased person by medical professionals.

“We’re looking at this bill for support and approval because it’s going to give us more data to really understand how much air quality affects people,” Gonzalez said.

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

The study, titled “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 very interested in environmental issues and how they affect humans,” Errigo said. “When I first started reading about it, I only found numbers at the global level on how it affects your health, but there was nothing at the state level.”

Errigo worried about air pollution after moving to Utah for school. “I grew up in Chicago and there are a lot more people there, and it’s a much more condensed space, but you never see the pollution like you see it in Utah,” Errigo said.

The study highlighted four findings: air pollution shortens the average Utahn’s lifespan by two years, air pollution costs Utah’s economy an average of 1, $8 billion a year, fossil fuel pollution causes or worsens many diseases and conditions in Utah and there are many states actions nationwide that could reduce air pollution while benefiting the economy.

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

The Utah Department of Environmental Quality’s annual air quality report shows that air pollution in Utah has improved over the past few decades. This department is led by people such as Bo Call, the air quality monitoring officer.

“There is an increased awareness of the problem because of our smartphones, which is a good thing, but people are less aware that the air is getting better and cleaner every year,” said- he declared. The department has developed an app for residents called Utah Air, which can help people track pollution and make better choices about air quality.

By following federal air quality standards and adjusting them at the state level, the Utah Department of Environmental Quality is working to monitor the problem and focus on the origin actual pollution.

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

Their “Your Air Your Utah” campaign 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 people coming to them, wanting to know how they could save money on their utilities and improve air quality.”

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

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

Although some people may turn to the government and organizations to fix air pollution, the real problem is more complex and depends on individuals.

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

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

HB 109 would provide funding to collect more data on people who died from air pollution-related causes and could potentially raise awareness of the environmental problem of air pollution in Utah.

Even with the introduction of the bill in the House of Representatives and working with politicians and scientists, Errigo said more action needed to be taken.

“It’s about getting people to understand how big a deal this is, so they want to make these changes. Getting doctors to consider air pollution a cause of death is a step in the right direction,” she said. “We should communicate to our legislators that this is something we care about so that they, who are supposed to represent us, can make decisions that truly represent the people.”

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