written by: Glen Warchol & Susan Lacke
Utah has the greatest snow on earth–and the worst air quality in the nation.
As our airplane descended into Salt Lake City International airport, the passengers began to murmur–why hadn’t we emerged from the clouds yet? When would we see the snowy mountains of the Wasatch Range?
“Is it usually this foggy in Salt Lake?” The man in 14A turned to me. Over the course of our flight from Dallas, he had shared his excitement for his planned ski week in Utah–a bucket-list adventure involving the greatest snow on earth. As he looked out the window, however, his excitement faded to trepidation.
“Foggy? No,” I replied. Technically, it wasn’t a lie.
It was January 31, 2017–or, as most Utahns remember it, the day Salt Lake City achieved the infamous distinction of “Worst Air Quality in the Nation.” Utah emergency rooms were at capacity with patients experiencing asthma attacks and cardiac issues. Schools were keeping kids inside during recess. And my seatmate, upon stepping into the dank, stagnant cloud of smog awaiting him at the shuttle stop at SLC, could only stare in open-mouthed awe.
“This is…” he stammered as he struggled to find the right words, “not what I was expecting.”
Welcome to Utah, home of breathtaking landscapes and air that will, well, take your breath away. For those who don’t live here, the thick smog of the Wasatch Valley between December and February is a surprising contrast to their mental image of the state: pristine snow against a bluebird sky. But the reality is much different for those living here, flush with migraine headaches, dreary days and a metallic taste in the mouth that just won’t go away.
Public opinion polls frequently show air quality as a top concern for most Utahns–so why isn’t Utah actually doing anything about it? We are, after all, the state that declared pornography a public health crisis, despite actual, proven health crises linked to poor air quality: asthma, Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, heart attacks and adverse birth outcomes like preterm birth and perinatal death. According to Utah Physicians for Healthy Environment, as many as 2,000 premature deaths in the state can be attributed to air pollution.
Part of the bad air problem is hot air. Specifically, that blown around by politicians, lobbyists and–perhaps, most of all–the residents of Utah. A lot of lip service gets paid to the issue, but not a lot of action. We bemoan the smog from our idling cars in freeway traffic jams. We point accusatory fingers at refineries from the hearth of our wood-burning fireplaces. We vote for politicians who abandon the Clean Air Act and backtrack on promises to enact legislation to help Utahns breathe easier. Air pollution is a crisis of our own making, and it’s up to us to fix it.
Listen to Salt Lake Speaks’ podcast: The Forecast for Utah’s Future Winters Looks Bleak.
See more inside our 2018 Jan/Feb Issue.