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Thursday, July 18, 2024 | Back issues
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Toxic dust from the Great Salt Lake disproportionately affects Utahans of color, low-income residents

Drying lakes expose toxic dust, but conserving and even raising the lake's water level could lower health risks for all.

(CN) — Toxic dust from drying inland lakes combined with climate change and a history of discrimination means that low income people and people of color are more at risk for health problems than their wealthier or whiter neighbors, according to a University of Utah study.

Researchers published the study Friday in the journal One Earth, focusing specifically on how that dynamic plays out in the communities around Utah’s Great Salt Lake, which — like many inland lakes around the world — has been receding in recent decades due to climate change and increased usage by farmers and municipalities desperate for water. 

The study authors also called for more local policy to be developed toward restoring the lake beyond recreation and ecosystem concerns.

"This study adds environmental justice and the equity implications of the drying lake to the conversation,” Sara Grineski, professor of sociology and environmental studies at the University of Utah and lead author of the study said in a statement. “If we can raise the levels of the lake via some coordinated policy responses, we can reduce our exposure to dust, which is good for everyone's health, and we can also reduce the disparity between groups.”

As the waters of inland lakes dry up, fine particulate matter in the lake bed called PM2.5 is kicked up by the wind as dust. That dust can get deep into people’s lungs and their bloodstream, causing cardiovascular and respiratory problems like influenza valley fever, bacterial pneumonia, meningococcal meningitis, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, asthma, sarcoidosis, pulmonary fibrosis and bronchitis. 

“PM2.5 is the leading environmental cause of human mortality worldwide, and responsible for 50,000 premature deaths annually in the United States,” the researchers write in their study. 

The researchers — a multidisciplinary group of academics including atmospheric scientists, geographers and biologists — studied how dust pollution would change if the lake became even drier, or if its water levels rose. They then combined that information with demographic data to see how exposure to dust might intersect with socioeconomic status and racial identity of people living in three counties around the lake. 

They found that dust exposure is disproportionately higher in Pacific Islander and Hispanic Utahans, compared to white residents, and higher in people who didn’t graduate from high school as compared to people who did graduate.  

The researchers concede that there isn't evidence these factors specifically make people more at risk of being exposed to the lake’s toxic dust, but they do point out that their findings are consistent with previous environmental justice literature that finds that people of color and lower incomes all over the world — including in the U.S. — often live in marginalized and segregated communities that are disproportionately exposed to toxins from waste sites, industrial operations and other sources of air pollution, more so than their whiter and richer neighbors.

“This is the case on the West Side of the Salt Lake Valley, where anthropogenic sources of PM2.5 cluster, property values are relatively low, racial/ethnic minority groups concentrate, and exposed areas of the dry GSL bed are nearby," the researchers write in their study. "In other cases, historic discrimination has marginalized disadvantaged groups within undesirable residential areas, including those exposed to air pollution."

The solution, local politicians and big wigs should work to raise the water level in the lake to a “healthy” level, to prevent anybody from getting sick from toxic dust, the researchers write. 

That could be done by investing in water efficient mining technologies, more efficient agricultural use of the water, increased water metering, tiered water pricing and municipal water conservation programs, they say.

“If we were to enact policy and conservation measures to raise the lake, we would benefit not only in terms of decreased dust, but in terms of less dramatic disparities between who is breathing in more of this dust,” Grineski said in a statement.

“It’s important to consider the environmental justice implications of different choices that we might make in the policy arena when we think about different strategies for adaptation and mitigation to climate change,” she added.

Categories / Environment, Health, Science

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