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The Air We Breathe

A popular '60s expression was “you are what you eat.” True but incomplete. You are what you eat, what you drink, and what you breathe. Don’t think so? Try this: stop eating for three weeks, or stop taking in fluids for three days, or stop breathing for three minutes and your body will make a compelling case for you that life is the process of translating a natural and physical environment into flesh, blood, bone, nerve, and daily experience.

We trust our governments to protect us from contaminated food and water and they do an excellent job (Flint being the exception, not the rule). Travel to any third world country (most of the planet) and you discover how wonderful our easy access to potable water is. You can poison yourself by eating junk food, but that is your choice because nutritious food is available.

The air we breathe is a different matter. Anyone who has lived through one of Utah’s infamous inversions can attest to how far we have fallen short in guaranteeing that citizens breathe clean and nutritious air. Why?

Unlike food and water that have sources that are easy to trace and locate, air knows no boundaries, is not discreet, and cannot be isolated, treated, recalled, or avoided. The challenges are different. Even so, our air once contained lead until we legislated lead out of gasoline. We can do better. To do so, it is often said, we need the will to reign in emissions despite the power of industry, despite the popularity of auto travel, despite the inconveniences and limitations we are so reluctant to face.

I believe cleaning the air that makes us sick, that shortens lives, that results in all kinds of suffering from asthma to cancer to nasty bouts of congestion and coughing requires us to understand that the boundaries we think separate us from pollution specifically and from the natural world generally are temporary and permeable. As any person sickened by pollution can testify, we are vulnerable because lungs, spleens, kidneys, livers, stomachs, and other vital organs are open to whatever they encounter. And since we all live downwind and downstream from one another, the only defense they have are the decisions we make about what we allow into air, water, and soil. When those decisions are made in a way that is open, inclusive, transparent, informed, and accountable they are more likely to be wise and protective than when those decisions are closed, exclusive, secretive, misinformed, and unaccountable.

So it comes down to this. To clean up the air, we must clean up our political system so that it serves health instead of wealth, health instead of growth for growth’s sake, health instead of convenience. Remember that rivers were once convenient dumping grounds and in one infamous case a river actually caught on fire. Lead once permeated the air we breathe and the paint in our homes. Ozone cut a hole in the atmosphere that is now closing. Cigarettes were once sold as “doctor recommended.” Asbestos was once common in the building materials of schools.

So cleaning the air is not radical or overwhelming once we are determined to make it so. We may be wrapped in vulnerable flesh that is embedded in a complex and fluid world that is often frustratingly beyond our control but we are also blessed with agency, intelligence, creativity, and innovation. We have institutions, law, and policy to help us make life better. We have promising new technology to employ. We have the means. The only thing we lack is the will.


Chip Ward led campaigns to keep toxic and radioactive pollution out of Utah’s air and co-founded HEAL Utah. He wrote Canaries on the Rim: Living Downwind in the West and recently published his first novel, Stony Mesa Sagas. b. 1949

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