Improving Air Quality Through Education

Improving Air Quality Through Education

  • Posted by kaleigh
  • On February 6, 2018
  • Comments

You may have heard that The Front SLC is throwing a fundraiser called Climbing Up For Air this coming Saturday. If you’re wondering why this is relevant to us Ogdenites, let us tell you! The fundraiser is for Breathe Utah. When this non-profit is not at the capitol working to aid legislation that affects the air quality of our state, they are in classrooms educating youth about the importance of air quality and what contributes to our gruesome winter inversions. We can’t stress enough how important Breathe Utah's work is and their approach is equally as impressive! Last week, The Front SLC interviewed their executive director, Debbie Burney-Sigman, and went to class with one of their dedicated educators, Brian Behle. We included the interview below so you can dig deeper into this amazing organization!

 You can also learn about Salt Lake’s fundraiser event Climbing Up For Air here. They’ve invited us all down with the caveat that we try extra hard to carpool and/or use public transportation to get there. There will be some seriously amazing prizes raffled away and everyone one will be fed Este pizza and drinks (after you're done climbing, of course). To get in on the action, the entry fee is only $10 for members (or $25 for guests), which all goes directly to Breathe Utah! Even if you can’t make it, donations are greatly appreciated. You can make a donation directly to Breathe Utah through their site.

How long has Breathe Utah been fighting for clean air?
We underwent mitosis from Utah Moms for Clean Air in 2010, so wow, 8 years now.

What are the goals of Breathe Utah? Share with us some of your successes:
We have a great education team—they're currently on target to visit 10,000 kids this year. The next generation of Utahns will have a scientific grasp of air and air pollution! The success in building up to that comes from our collaborative style—how can we work with the administration to get the word out? How can we best meet teachers’ needs and be interesting for the students? Also, you may be surprised that the majority of our education funding comes from a refinery, Andeavor. Some people may raise their eyebrows at that partnership, but good science is good science, and we have that in common. We all need to appreciate civic-mindedness wherever it is found because working collaboratively is the key to that magic across-the-board, changing-norms progress. While giving thanks to sponsors, I have to mention Rocky Mountain PowerPatagoniaIntermountain HealthUCAIR, and Mark Miller Toyota. They all want to help do this.

Tell us about the Lego experiment that was used in class today. What does this experiment teach kids?
The kids get to handle the specially modified pieces like the light source, the detector, and the readout lights. They then design and construct a working device using a fan and regular blocks to make dark tunnels of the right shape with air flow. They test the design using a fog-mister to simulate pollution. The hardest part is probably following directions to plug all the wires into the little motherboard, and then backing up to see the thing as a whole again. That’s engineering though!

Why Legos?
We wish we could take credit for the idea, but our partners at AirU, a creation of University of Utah’s Chemical Engineering Department, developed this setup so kids could have a hands-on applied engineering experience. The overall research is about setting up inexpensive monitors all over the area and then crowdsourcing air quality data, but people need to know how the monitors work and what the data means. The activity is a way for kids to do both before their class hosts a real monitor.

What are biggest air quality challenges in Utah?
The biggest challenge is how diffused the sources are, and how ingrained they are in our society’s normal way of doing things. The idea of revolution is appealing, but progress happens when the majority of people accept some altered way of doing things as “normal.” Ten years ago neither solar panels or electric cars were normal. Twenty years ago, there were no TRAX trains and a downtown apartment wasn’t an appealing concept. Now, wood fireplaces and stoves are falling out of fashion because they are messy and time-consuming to use, and we may be looking at a new normal where a wood (or coal!) burning device would look odd to a modern homebuyer. For now, the smell of a wood fire in the city is still familiar. And by the way, that smoke is a serious part of the problem. For all these examples, progress was a result of a combination of policies, public and private investment, concerted education, and changing tastes. Rarely can one bold move make the singular difference.

What are some things we could do to improve our air quality in Utah that we may not know about?
First, at risk that you already know this, it’s so important not to light wood when there is any kind of clear weather in the forecast. If there isn’t a storm coming, everything we do adds to the load in our stagnant air mass. Next, you may or may not know that cars and trucks put a rush of pollution out before they’re warmed up, and they warm up more slowly if they’re not in motion. The worst thing you can do to your family and neighbors on a cold morning is idle to pre-warm the car. Apply the stagnant air principle to the car too! We may also underplay the contribution of snow-blowers and other similar equipment. Most of these appliances don’t have any emissions control devices at all and are a hundred times worse than a car. Lastly, the one thing folks really may not know about is the huge contribution of furnaces to our pollution. Keeping our buildings insulated and replacing water heaters with “ultra-low NOx” will be key to reducing pollution in the long run.

Would we be accurate to consider Breathe Utah our air quality watchdogs at the capitol?
Dog...for sure some kind of dog. Guide dog? Cattle dog? At their best dogs are persistent, endearing, and reliable. We like to know what’s going on, we strive to demonstrate consistent good judgment and build trust that we are giving worthwhile guidance. So I guess that’s more of a guide dog. Besides, legislators are quick to figure out the bark:bite ratio so barking wouldn’t do much.

How many people compose your organization?
For staff, we have 6 on the teaching team across 3 counties, an executive director, and a policy/program director. Our board has 9 members who put in a lot of volunteer time, as do our advisory board.

In how many schools do you teach? Where are they located?
We have team members in place to reach Davis and Salt Lake Counties, Provo School District, and Cache Valley. We are seeking someone for Northern Utah County because we can’t meet requests right now.

What would it look like if your non-profits education program was included in a student’s curriculum?
Most of our curriculum so far works in concert with the state science core. In the future, we can see a good fit for health, social studies, language arts, and of course drivers ed. Our vision is to have aspects of air quality knowledge woven throughout kids’ school experience, all the while working on critical thinking skills, observational and experiential learning, all that.

Do you work well with people up at the capitol?
The ones who like dogs...happy, relentless dogs… Seriously, it’s important to have a good rapport because that’s how you have a conversation lasting longer than a sentence. It’s also really important to enjoy your job because this can be hard.

What are the roadblocks you face on the hill?
We look forward to being better known. There are a few legislators we get to work with closely, but others that are in the “which one are you?” stage. Thanks to everyone’s work over the last decade, many more elected officials now appreciate that air is an important issue and want to know how they can be on the right side of things. That wasn’t the case not so long ago. But, we still work against the concept that you’re either an environmentalist OR fiscally responsible or pro-business or whatnot. We clearly all live in this world together and most people would like a job AND clean air. So let’s figure it out.

When did Jared Campbell and your organization connect? Tell us about your relationship with him:
Jared joined the Breathe Utah sphere in about 2012. He was and always will be a folk hero (sorry, Jared…) and we grabbed him to our board not long after he found us to donate to clean air efforts through his then-personal Running Up For Air. All that time, he continued to spread the word about low-energy living while killing it as an athlete, but after a couple of years, he was smart enough to point out that he could do a lot more if he didn’t have to come to committee meetings. Really, genius, isn’t it? He has built up the event into an institution. Meanwhile, he tested out masks using himself as a laboratory, and we only recommend the style he uses himself.

What more can we do to help you help us?
I hope this isn’t too cliche, but be mindful. We make pollution, “they” make pollution, everyone makes pollution. But despair, blame, guilt, and shame eat at us. Live constructively and do what you can. If taking a measure to reduce your own impact, like turning the heat down to 62, will cause resentment, pick something else. I wasn’t ready to buy an electric car this go-around and I can’t make transit work just yet. But, we grabbed the chance to put more insulation in our walls when we remodeled. And, we as a group can help make it easier for the rest by pushing for the right infrastructure like bus routes and acknowledge good effort when it’s there. All of you who trained yourselves to sit on a cold car seat, thank you! All of you who figured out a way to cycle to work, thank you! Companies that install chargers, provide transit passes, have a no-idling policy...this is how it happens. And since you’re asking, we can always use help reaching more classrooms. If you know a teacher, please put us in touch!

« Like what you hear? That's because Breathe Utah consists of an incredible group of people! Help us support them on Saturday, February 10th by coming to The Front in Salt Lake City to climb as many routes/problems as you can! Then have some drinks, pizza, and maybe even win a prize.