Air pollution is a silent killer. We can’t always see it, we can’t smell it, we can’t hear it–yet it fills the lungs of 2.5 million Salt Lake Valley residents. Great Salt Lake’s decline has exposed 800 square-miles of lakebed, where toxic levels of arsenic, mercury, antimony, copper, zirconium, selenium, and various heavy metals have accumulated over centuries. 

Great Salt Lake Institute Director, Bonnie Baxter, forewarns, “[Great Salt Lake] is an ecological disaster that will become a human health disaster. We know about dust storms, we know about particulate pollution, we know about heavy metals and how they’re bad for humans. We see a crisis that is imminent.” 

However, the impact of this human health bomb on our children has failed to gain widespread attention and accelerate efforts to restore Great Salt Lake.  

I am writing this as one of many young people whose ability to live, raise a family, and flourish in Utah depends on saving Great Salt Lake.  

Childhood Health and Great Salt Lake:

Utahns under 18 years old make up approximately 27% of the population, the highest proportion out of any state in the country. The toxins embedded in Great Salt Lake indiscriminately impact human health; however, children are most vulnerable to air pollution due to the ongoing development of their lungs and immune systems. Particle deposit levels are higher in children and asthma-prone individuals, and exposure to air pollutants has been connected to increased asthma exacerbations, respiratory distress, deficits in lung growth, airway inflammation, and new onset asthma. All of these complications influence the long-term lung health and the longevity of children in Utah. 

Learning from the World:

Increases in air pollution across the globe account for over 9 million deaths annually. Around Lake Urmia, Iran—a saline lake similar to GSL—researchers have discovered a high correlation between dust storms, increased lung inflammation, and decreased lung function among children. Studies in dust-storm prone areas of Greece have shown not only an increase in particulate matter but a “2.5% increase in emergency hospital admissions for pediatric asthma.” 

Dust storms have been associated with reduced pulmonary function among children with asthma in Korea, and frighteningly, with decreased pulmonary functions in healthy school children in Taiwan. Near Old Wives Lake in Canada, dust events were found to increase eye irritation, coughing, nasal irritation, and wheezing. Even the smallest amount of lead exposure–one of the many heavy metals found in Great Salt Lake–can damage the brain of a child 

Protecting Our Future

The decline of saline lakes and the devastation their loss has caused communities around the world should forewarn Utahns about what is to come if we let the Great Salt Lake disappear. 

At lower lake levels, dust storms and the related hospitalizations will increase exponentially, which could place immense strain on Salt Lake Valley’s medical services. The housing market and growth of our state will take a hit, unjustly impacting younger generations and marginalized communities. The dust will degrade soil health and accelerate snowmelt, impacting the ski industry, water security, and agriculture alike.  

According to the Utah Legislature Auditor General, current dust mitigation will cost at least 1.5 billion in taxpayer dollars. The people of Utah will pay the price, if Great Salt Lake continues to dry up. 

Great Salt Lake dust is ridden with toxic particulates inevitably harming adults, and disproportionately impacting children. While air pollution is a global concern, there is hope for Salt Lake Valley: diverting more water into Great Salt Lake. More water means less exposed dust and prevents a public health disaster. Even amongst the intense partisanship found in today’s society, air quality and human health must remain non-partisan.

Grow the Flow Director—Dr. Ben Abbott—put it best: “Reversing the collapse of the Great Salt Lake system is perhaps the greatest challenge we have faced in the history of our state. However, history shows that our community is capable of just this kind of bold collective action.”