The Wasatch Front of Northern Utah is a special place to live. In many areas of the country, mountain views of the quality (and quantity!) that we regularly enjoy come at a very high premium in terms of real estate and general cost of living. Our unique topography, however, leads to a rather nasty side effect in the coldest months of the year. For up to a few weeks at a time, temperature inversions trap cold air down in the valleys. This by itself is not such a big deal, but the vast majority of air pollutants also get caught in the bottom layer of air; the air we see, hear, and at its worst, taste.

The previous winter (2012-13) was the worst I’ve experienced in my seven years living in Northern Utah. We had 49 days [1] where the PM2.5 level was 15 µg/m³ or greater. PM2.5 refers to particulate matter of 2.5 µm or less — particles which can only be seen under an electron microscope and can get deep into your lungs and even your bloodstream [2].

On those red air days, if you’re waking up with a sore throat and acrid-tasting phlegm, you’re experiencing respiratory irritation from these particles. Can’t seem to get rid of that nagging cold? It’s likely the air pollution.

This winter (2013-14) has been just as bad, if not worse. People are getting pissed. Today thousands of people are rallying at the state capital building. We demand action. So what do we do?

Here are some obvious, pragmatic solutions. To start with, all could be required solely on the ‘mandatory action’ days, potentially only a few days a year:

  1. Ban idling. I don’t even mean turning off your car at traffic lights. I’m talking about people sitting in their nice, warm car for 15 minutes in a parking lot while their spouse is inside running errands. Put on a coat, and turn the damn car off.
  2. Speed limit caps. I imagine the twice-a-day traffic congestion up and down I-15 is a bigger issue, but reducing the speed limit to 55mph isn’t going to hurt anyone. Again, this could only be on red air days.
  3. Eliminate most point source pollution by turning off refineries, mining operations, etc. on red air days. To me this seems like a no-brainer. Sure it will hurt their bottom line. But not as much as packing up and moving elsewhere, another possibility. This could help pay for large industry’s negative externalities [3] they’ve been getting away with over the years.

Less pragmatic, unrealistic, but oft-mentioned solutions:

  1. Reduce or eliminate driving. Sorry, but for the vast majority of people, there’s really no viable alternative to driving to work. Sure, we could carpool more, increase public transportation usage, and reduce trips, but not driving often just isn’t an option. [4]
  2. Move the refineries out of the valley. I am all for this, but I suspect that the cost of doing so would kill them, putting thousands of people out of work. Plus, where would they go? The problem isn’t just localized to the Wasatch Front.

A final point for refocusing debate around this issue: Is there anything more important than public health? It’s frustrating that we get so caught up on economics while ignoring the most fundamental right of all. Without our health, we have nothing.

[4] I, admittedly, could pretty much stop driving to work, with an extra half-hour added to my commute each way via bus.