Local Groups Raise Awareness of Air Quality Issues

Clean air protesters dressed as Santa and an elf wave to passing cars outside Trolley Square.
Clean air protesters dressed as Santa and an elf wave to passing cars outside Trolley Square.

(KCPW News) Decked out in holiday apparel and wearing masks to protect their lungs from pollution, about a dozen protesters gather on the sidewalk along 700 East, one of the busiest streets in Salt Lake. A man dressed as Santa Claus waves to the constant stream of traffic, holding a sign that says, “Breathing clean air is the birthright of every child.”

And who better to speak for children than Santa Claus?

“We’re actually now going to Santa and saying that all we want for Christmas is clean air,” says Cherise Udell, founder of Utah Moms for Clean Air. “Just gives us clean air! Please! Stuff our stockings with clean air.”

Udell’s trying to raise awareness of air quality issues in Utah, ever mindful of the season’s holiday cheer.

“We have some creative ideas that we’re doing,” she says. “This is one of those ideas, dressing up as Santa and elves and employing their support to try to clean up Utah’s air, saying that basically our government’s been unresponsive.”

On a day like today, it’s hard to argue that air pollution isn’t a problem in Salt Lake. A brownish haze surrounds us, making this city’s iconic mountainous backdrop harder to appreciate. The Utah Division of Air Quality has deemed this day “unhealthy” for everyone—even those of us in otherwise good health.

For residents with health issues such as asthma or COPD, winter inversion problems came earlier than usual this year. Dr. Denitza Blagev, who specializes in pulmonary and critical care, has noticed an uptick in problems related to the inversion in the past week or so.

“We’ve seen an increase in the number of calls and patients complaining of shortness of breath, chest tightness, chest burning,” she says. “And it seems to be progressively getting worse over the course of that time as the air pollution accumulates in the air.”

Dr. Blagev previously worked in Boston and San Francisco. She says one thing that sets Salt Lake apart from other metropolitan areas is the stark transition from clean air to polluted air.

“For most other places where you have kind of these long-term pollutants over bigger cities, when people are affected by the air pollution, I think often they just figure, ‘Well, that’s how bad my asthma is,'” says Blagev.

Utahns, on the other hand, experience symptoms more dramatically when the inversion arrives. Blagev says that makes it easier for residents to attribute symptoms to the pollution.

Living in Salt Lake, Udell has developed an environmentally-induced asthma within the past year, and her two kids have chronic sinus and ear infections, meaning they have to stay inside on days with poor air quality. So one has to wonder: has her family thought about moving?

“Oh, we’ve looked at property. We have,” Udell says. “We’ve looked at property up in Park City, up in Immigration Canyon. So that would be the most likely thing we would do, is actually move up the canyon and move to Park City, recenter our lives up in those areas.”

“But we like it here in Salt Lake City,” Udell continues. “And it’s the only reason we would leave. The only reason we would leave is because of how bad the air is every year, and that our politicians really refuse to do anything about it.”

And if leaving the community she calls home seems like an extreme decision, Udell says members of Utah Moms for Clean Air have already done it. Dr. Blagev also says some of her patients have made the same decision Udell is now considering.

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