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Pollution Expert and Children's Choir Bring "Breath of Fresh Air" to Logan

The Intermountain Bioneers, the local branch of a national environmental education group, brought economist and public health expert Dr. Arden Pope to Logan on Friday night, to kick off their 10th annual conference. UPR’s Jennifer Pemberton tells us why Dr. Pope’s research always hits home in Cache Valley.

Some of the issues the local Bioneers tackle, they say on their website, are difficult and unsettling, but they don’t focus on doomsday scenarios; they focus on solutions and hope. Which is why when they brought in Dr. Arden Pope to be their keynote speaker, they surrounded his presentation with performances by the Cache Children’s Choir.

Dr. Pope is a BYU professor of economics, but he’s known best for his seminal work on the effects of particulate air pollution on mortality and health, which definitely falls into the unsettling category.

“We learned without a doubt that very high levels of air pollution causes respiratory, cardiovascular disease, and death…Just the act of breathing polluted air increased the risk of dying by 26%. This was stunning. We had a hard time believing these results.”

Dr. Pope has been to Logan before. He was the keynote speaker at the Bear River Health Department Air Quality Summit in March. Air pollution researchers love coming to Cache Valley. Dr. Pope was born in Logan, but the reason he's here today is to talk about the air pollution problem that's specific to Cache Valley:

“It’s a beautiful valley. Why would we be concerned about air pollution in Utah or Cache Valley? For a number of reasons. One is our population is growing, our economic activity is growing, the pollution we put into our air is growing, and guess what else? [Cows?] Right, we’re in Cache Valley. You got cows emitting ammonia...”

He was going to say "inversions," before someone in the audience interjected with "cows." We live in a valley. High pressure puts a lid on our valley and traps pollution, which becomes unhealthier to breathe by the day. But cows are an important factor -- a limiting factor actually -- in the pollution problem in Cache Valley because we don’t have major industry doing the polluting. We don’t have refineries. We don’t have a medical incinerator. We have cows and cars and we live in a valley and that’s our air pollution problem in a nutshell.

Dr. Pope’s studies on air pollution and health were done in the 1980s and 90s and have been expanded upon, extended, validated and re-validated over the years. The research is canonized. It’s been to the Supreme Court and back. It has influenced policies in the U.S. and Europe. It’s kind of old news, but In August of this year Republican congressman Chris Stewart subpoenaed the EPA to get access to the raw data for the studies Pope was involved in that led to the creation of air pollution policies that protect human health. Stewart and other House republicans started calling the air pollution studies “secret science” and suggested that the data was being hidden from the public. To which allegations, Dr. Pope responds:

“Want me to let you in on a secret? Should I show you the secret science? You’re going to be disappointed. Because I already have! This secret science was published in the New England Journal of Medicine. What kind of secret is that?”

The venue of the program, the Logan Tabernacle, has Dr. Pope literally preaching to the choir. He addresses the children’s choir sitting in the balcony. But Dr. Pope isn’t a preacher. He doesn’t even consider himself an advocate. He’s an economist. He’s a statistician. But a teenager asks him after his presentation is over, in a way that only a teenager can, “Why are you telling us this?” Dr. Pope's response:

“How do I communicate most of what I learn? Not through this [speaking to the public]. Through publishing in the New England Journal of Medicine, the Journal of American Medicine, etc., and then I hope that good people will read them, will understand them, and that science will develop good public policy. But can we have good public policy if the public doesn’t want it?”

The kid answers "No," and then says, “it seems like your message should be going to a bigger group.”

Pope responds, “How does it go to a bigger group? You have to take it to them.”

And then the children’s choir sings Sh’ma Yisrael, which is described in the program notes as a liturgical prayer to be “repeated morning and night during moments of grave crises,” which, going back to the mission of the Bioneers, could be construed as a solution. At the very least, it provides what the what the title of the presentation promises will be “A Breath of Fresh Air.”