Salt Lake City’s efforts in fighting pollution are facing a new challenge: Toxic Dust

Parts of the Great Salt Lake hardly resembled a lake at all this fall.

Higher elevation neighborhoods are more susceptible to pollution. Residents on the west side can be more affected by pollution from refinery emissions, car exhaust and other sources.

Jorge Casillas (58), who has lived in the west side for 15-years, said that the valley irritates his eyes and causes sinus infections. It’s difficult to stay in the valley.

According to Perry, overall, Salt Lake City’s emissions have decreased, mainly because of the Obama administration’s vehicle emission standards. In 2021, the EPA proposed re-listing Salt Lake City’s area to “attainment” for small particles pollution that it was not able to control sufficiently.

Perry stated, “When we switch over to electric vehicles our air quality will improve dramatically.”

However, the progress made is being wiped out by wildfires and duststorms at Great Salt Lake. It adds another layer of concern to those on the West Side.

“There is so much sediment, and so much that has been trapped for so many years. Casillas stated that it’s pulling up stuff trapped for over 100 years. Are there carcinogens and other health risks? This is what I am concerned about. There are so many children living in this neighborhood.

Some Utahans are scared by the constant media coverage about pollution and dust.

Janice Brahney is an assistant professor in the watershed sciences department at Utah State University. She said, “I’ve been receiving a number of emails by concerned citizens reconsidering living here Salt Lake City.”

‘We don’t know’

Researchers from the USGS discovered something fascinating when they mapped samples taken from dust traps.

Other metals like nickel, thallium, and lead were more likely than those EPA markers to exceed Rose Park’s white communities. However, arsenic was found in more wealthy communities due to its former use as a fertilizer for agricultural lands.

Researchers suspect that many of the dust and toxic metals in urban dust are coming from nearby polluters or construction sites. Dust from nearby Great Salt Lake or other playas could also pick up pollutants from nearby refineries, mines and pesticides.

Researchers found that the suburbs around Salt Lake City had the highest levels (and metals) of dust and metals. Researchers believe the most dust blowing off the lake could be coming from the north, which includes areas like Syracuse, Ogden, and Bountiful. Workers were busy framing new homes in the early autumn, just a mile away from the lakeshore.

Perry stated that these areas constitute an air monitoring dead area.

He said that there is almost no sampling north of Salt Lake City. “We really lack a cohesive network to answer the question about who is most affected.”

Putman and his colleagues set up 17 more dust traps, all called “Woody”, in counties north from Salt Lake this year to help assess the risk.

Annie Putman, a USGS researcher, stands with a dust-capturing sensor. Researchers suspect suburban communities north of Salt Lake City could be receiving the majority of the dust that blows off the lake.

Evan Bush / NBC News

There is still so much to learn. Although the EPA has established screening levels for metals found in soil, there are no standards for dust-borne toxic metals.

We don’t know how much arsenic dust must have in order to cause problems. Putman stated that there is no study that can provide such information. What are the long-term and short-term effects of this? We don’t even know.

Researchers are still unsure whether the dust contains arsenic or other metals that can be absorbed by plants, animals, and humans. The testing is ongoing. Blakowksi is currently growing cabbage in a laboratory, and spraying the plants with samples of Great Salt Lake dust to determine how much arsenic it takes up.

California ratepayers spent $2.5 Billion controlling dust emissions at Owens Lake. This lake was drained by Los Angeles Department of Water and Power to make it the largest human-made source of dust in the U.S.

Researchers believe the Great Salt Lake is a greater threat.

Blakowski stated that the area of the lakebed currently exposed is more than seven times greater than Owens Lake’s entire area. Blakowski also said that Utah’s population is approximately 50 times greater downwind. “We can’t wait. It will only get dustier, and it has serious implications for the ecosystem and human health if we wait too long.

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