The most fundamental right there is, is the right to breathe clean air. Air pollution tarnishes our community reputation, it erodes our quality of life and stifles our economy much as it does our lungs. —Dr. Brian Moench
SALT LAKE CITY — Amanda Bakian wants her 1-year-old son to grow up healthy and strong. "Getting fresh air is important for him," she said.
That is why she hauled him on her back to the state Capitol on Saturday to take part in a rally that called attention to Utah's polluted winter air.
An estimated 4,000 people gathered with her on the front steps and lawn — some wearing breathing masks, others carrying signs. Most arrived by foot, on bikes or via complementary or extended-hour mass transit to voice their displeasure with Utah's lawmakers and a lack of regulation and taxation they believe would help clean up the air.
"The most fundamental right there is, is the right to breathe clean air," said Dr. Brian Moench, president of Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment. "Air pollution tarnishes our community reputation, it erodes our quality of life and stifles our economy much as it does our lungs."
Moench helped organize Saturday's event and led the crowd in a repetitive chant: "Clean air, no excuses."
He asked attendees to contact state representatives and sign a petition that calls for transportation reform in the state and aims to halt expansion of industry sources of pollution. The entreaty seeks other changes that would potentially cut down on particulate matter in the air, specifically during the winter months when it becomes trapped by colder air in the valley.
Dr. Kent Di Fiore, an oncologist with Utah Cancer Specialists, said lung cancer used to be limited to smokers, but is now being diagnosed in Utahns with "frightening regularity."
Air pollution, he said, "is a global problem and it is a public health hazard."
Aniko Safran, who lives in Salt Lake City's Rose Park neighborhood, said she'd like to take her daughter outside "without worrying about cancer, asthma and allergies."
"When you go outside, when you're driving around or walking around or on your bicycle and you can't see the mountains at all — that's bad," Safran said. "We live here because we love the mountains. We love the scenery here. And if you can't see it, why stay?"
Louis Melini doesn't own a car, but will borrow his wife's about 12 times a year. He rides a commuter/touring bike to work and everywhere else, even in poor weather.
"I'm 63. If I can do it, most anyone can," he said. "It's all about the attitude you have."
Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker, also a proponent of bicycle commuting and mass transit, told the group to lobby for legislation that would fund transportation options in the city. He said that if state-level lawmakers aren't up to the challenge, "give us authority at the local level so that we can start making changes to clean our air."
"We're fed up with this gunk in our air," Becker said.
"If you can see it, if you can taste the air, if it hurts when it goes down your throat, chances are that damn air is bad," former KSL-TV news anchor Dick Nourse told the crowd. Nourse, a four-time cancer survivor, said three of his bouts with disease have been related to respiratory ailments likely caused by bad air.
Made-up lyrics to popular melodies rang throughout the crowd at times and creative quips on signs and posters bounced above the heads of attendees for the nearly two-hour long event.
Moench called it "an historic event — one that shows the Utah will no longer tolerate our air pollution problem."
He hopes state leaders not in attendance at the rally will hear the noise — noise he said will continue through the upcoming legislative session, which begins Monday.
Utah's dirty air, at times classified as the worst in the nation, Moench said, is "literally making Utahns sick."
He said children and future generations stand to lose the most if conditions don't change.
"We like to be active. We like to get out and play in nature and take advantage of this beautiful place that we live," said Bakian, who lives in the Avenues. "I would not take (my son) out on worse than moderate air days.
"Sadly, we would just stay in or we'd contribute to the problem and have to drive someplace to get out of it. He needs to get fresh air and be outside. We all do."