There are a lot of things that Utah is known for. From strange alcohol laws, to its highly religious population, Utah stands out in many ways. One of the most concerning things that Utah is known for, however, is its air pollution. Up until this point, most of that pollution comes from vehicle exhaust and industry. Within the past few years, however, there’s a new kid on the block making our air quality even worse–Great Salt Lake.
Now, Great Salt Lake itself isn’t the problem. It’s a remarkable lake providing ecosystem services, economic output, and refuge to millions of migrating birds. It is the lack of the lake that creates problems for people living nearby. As the lake’s surface area shrinks, the lakebed shows its face to the sun and starts to dry. The dry sediment, lined with toxic metals, is very vulnerable to wind dispersal that picks up this dust and spreads it across the valley. As described by the New York Times, this “environmental nuclear bomb” poses a significant threat to residents in the Salt Lake Valley and beyond.
Arsenic is one of several heavy metals found in concerning quantities across the exposed lakebed of Great Salt Lake. Because this is a new problem, little is understood about what else is contained in the lake. However, researchers estimate that there are elevated levels of chemicals from mine tailings, agriculture, and industry. While scientists are unsure about the extent of the harm these toxic heavy metals can cause in humans, they are working to better understand the future world we may soon live in. If we want to avoid the unknown consequences of breathing arsenic ridden air, we must take swift, significant steps to rapidly shepherd water back to the lake. The risk of potential harm to Salt Lake Valley residents—breathing difficulty, birth complications, and learning impediments— outweighs the small chance that arsenic exposure may be benign.
Regardless of the Arsenic, constant exposure to high concentrations of particulate matter that would result if the lake dried up more is a serious public health concern. I didn’t realize how damaging breathing in dust can be until I traveled to Nepal earlier this year for a research project. We were expanding the results of a previous study looking at the effects of air pollution from brick kilns on the local community members. Making bricks resulted in a near constant exposure to dust from the soil, clay, and smoke associated with the kiln. Researchers determined that this constant exposure put these people at very high risk for contracting a disease called COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease). Essentially, this disease results from breathing particulate matter which damages the lungs, making it increasingly more difficult to breathe. In many cases, COPD results in death. The risk for COPD and other pulmonary diseases increases with exposure to dust and other airborne particles. It is a preventable, but irreversible disease.
We already live in an area with some of the worst air pollution in the country. Do we want a future where our community is plagued by pulmonary problems and irreversible diseases for generations to come? Our future depends on the Lake just as the Lake relies on us. We need to get water to the Great Salt Lake, fast. Not just for the ecosystem, but for ourselves.
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