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SALT LAKE CITY — Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment presented “truly alarming” findings Wednesday regarding the hazards of air pollution and its widespread impact on public health, including heightened coronavirus mortality rates.
Physicians combed through nearly 100 health studies from 2019 to compile an understanding of air pollution’s impacts particularly in Utah, which they delivered at the state Capitol.
According to Dr. Brian Moench, founder and president of Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment, results of several “well-respected studies were truly alarming.” Their results, coupled with the findings of thousands of other studies, make Utah’s air pollution a “public health emergency,” he said.
“Air pollution is the fifth-leading risk factor for death worldwide. It can harm any organ in the body, it can penetrate any cell in the body,” Moench said. “Air pollution is a danger to everyone’s health, but some people are more susceptible than others.” He listed genetics, socioeconomics, race and ethnicity as examples.
Regarding the coronavirus, Moench said Utah Gov. Gary Herbert was right to declare a state of emergency because of the potential for a large-scale spread of the disease among the population.
“We would like to point out that another serious threat should be thought of as an emergency as well. It causes the deaths of thousands of Utah citizens — hundreds of thousands throughout the country,” he said. “Quite likely more than what seems possible from the coronavirus, and yet it has not been treated as an emergency by our lawmakers. That is our air pollution.”
Poor air’s damaging effects on the lungs heightens the risks of coronavirus because most deaths are due to pneumonia, Moench explained.
Preexisting damage that air pollution does to lung function and lung tissue “acutely and chronically” will make those victims of the virus more easily susceptible to respiratory failure, he said.
However, dangers stretch beyond the increased risks coronavirus can pose.
In general, air pollution causes between 1,000 and 2,000 people to die prematurely each year in Utah, Moench said, pointing to a study conducted by BYU finding air pollution shortens the life span of Utah residents an average of two years.
The same study also estimates air pollution costs Utah’s economy around $1.8 billion a year, though some national studies suggest that number could be around $7.4 billion, Moench said.
Air pollution is also associated with increased unethical behavior and violent crime as well as nearly every type of mental illness like depression and behavioral disorders, according to Sara DeLong, an Intermountain Healthcare psychiatrist. It also can impact test scores.
However, there is some promising news, according to emergency room doctor Tom Nelson.
“The benefits of cleaner air occur almost immediately. Respiratory symptoms, hospitalizations, school absenteeism and mortality start to drop within a few weeks in a setting of improved air conditions,” he explained.
DeLong added that a standard classroom air purifier can significantly improve student test scores — even more than reducing class size by 30%.
Moench said they plan to advocate for the implementation of air purifiers in all school classrooms next year due to the “profound benefit” it can have on brain function and because it is the “most cost-effective way to improve public education in Utah by far.”
In some ways things are getting better, Moench said, pointing to the Clear Air Act’s role in helping drop nation pollution levels about 30%.
“However, there are some worrying trends that are going in the opposite direction. Ozone levels are increasing globally and that’s affecting life not only along the Wasatch Front, but in rural Utah as well.”