Salt Lake City will take your breath away … and not in a good way

Salt Lake City is a magnet for outdoor recreation enthusiasts of all stripes. Nestled at the base of the Wasatch Mountains, SLC serves as a prime launching pad for bikers, climbers, hikers, skiers, snowboarders and many other nature aficionados. Yet, as most of us know all too well, there is another breathtaking element of Salt Lake City besides its beautiful mountain range: its evil winter air quality.

While we all suffer from and complain about the valley’s pollution problem, we also contribute to it by driving our cars, charging our gadgets, heating our home, etc. These things are, for better or worse, the realities of modern life. However, our conveniences do not have to condemn us to an existence predicated on disgusting air, ugly inversion layers and chronic health problems. The Utah Student Clean Air Network is an organization on campus that is leading the charge against air contamination. The folks at USCAN are currently recruiting members, so if you want to help fix our afflicted atmosphere (and perhaps absolve some personal guilt in the process) you can join the group, like the USCAN Facebook page and engage in some empowering activism.

USCAN’s primary objectives and activities include attending/organizing protests and rallies, lobbying for and promoting clean air legislation, hosting educational events aimed at raising awareness and conducting legislator letter campaigns. The group is currently starting a campaign to distribute free air-filtering masks to the student body. Most of us associate these surgical-style masks with the densely populated and highly polluted streets of Beijing, but they’re becoming increasingly common in our own city. It’s striking to see people wearing these dystopian-esque accessories, and it may even seem a bit extreme. However, as more information continues to surface about the dangers of inhaling particulate matter in our inversion-stricken valley, the notion of not wearing some kind of filter is starting to seem surprisingly reckless.

A 2011 study published in “Environmental Health Perspectives” showed a correlation between PM2.5 exposure and cardiovascular disease as well as lung cancer. Some media sources have even reported that breathing in PM2.5, which is prevalent in the Salt Lake Valley during smoggy inversions, is comparable to smoking a pack of cigarettes a day. Enlightening students on the severe health risks associated with inhaling PM2.5 air will inspire them to embrace the masks. If the trend proliferates, it could help enact effective clean air legislation. After all, what politician wants to see his or her constituents walking around wearing post-apocalyptic masks? These somewhat silly-looking masks could send a powerful message and potentially inspire some much-needed change.

As beneficial as surgical masks might be, both in terms of physical health and raising awareness, they are not a requisite for inducing change. Concerned students, faculty and community members interested in putting some pressure on the Utah legislature to implement strategic plans for cleaning up our air should attend the 2nd Annual Clean Air, No Excuses Rally this Saturday. The rally will be held at the Capitol building from 12 to 1:30 p.m. USCAN organizers are helping to promote the rally, which is being hosted by several advocacy groups, including Clean Air Now, Utah Moms for Clean Air and Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment. The rally is designed to show our politicians that we mean business, and that we are fed up with Salt Lake’s distasteful air. There will also be fun, good food and masses of enthusiastic supporters.

The first Clean Air, No Excuses rally made waves last year, as over 5,000 people stormed the Capitol building and called for legislative action. The first rally inspired a cascade of new clean air legislation proposals, many of which will be considered during the 2015 legislative session. One notable bill, HB 49, would provide $20 million to replace diesels in Utah’s fleet of school buses with cleaner burning, more energy efficient engines. The primary purpose of the rally is to express community support for this, and similarly refreshing pieces of legislation. Organizers are hoping to double last years participation, so come to Capitol Hill this Saturday and make your voice heard.

All of us want to breathe a little easier, and thanks to the Clean Air rally and USCAN, we have the opportunity to realize that ambition. If you are interested in being an active force for positive change, take a deep breath and join the USCAN club.

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