The EPA, or Environmental Protection Agency, defines particulate matter (PM) as a mixture of solid particles and liquid droplets found in the air. Some particulate matter, like dirt or smoke, is large enough to be seen clearly with the unaided eye. The more dangerous sizes of particulate matter, however, can only be detected with the use of an electron microscope, which physically passes electrons through a given substance. As a result of water misuse and climate change, the once bountiful Great Salt Lake is drying up rapidly, leaving worrying amounts of arsenic, PM2.5, and PM10, the smallest inhalable particles on the particulate matter scale. The situation is, indeed, dire, but despite this, there are ways that average Utahns can aid the Great Salt Lake and slightly reduce the toxification of Utah’s air.
According to Dr. Kevin Perry, the head of atmospheric sciences at the University of Utah, the most dangerous effect of the lake’s current condition are the particles that, as the lake continues to dry, will permeate air throughout the Salt Lake valley. Kevin explained that the particles coming off of the Great Salt Lake are of high concentrations which, when inhaled over time, can cause respiratory diseases and other acute responses. Additionally, the PM10s that come off of the lake contain heavy amounts of arsenic that can cause cancer when inhaled. For Kevin, though, the minute particles are the major concern. This is primarily because the information on the arsenic levels stored in the lakebeds of the Great Salt Lake, as well as its concentration in the air post-drying, is lacking. The consequences of the inhalable particles that would pervade the air, PM2.5s and PM10s, are, however, well-known: premature death in people with heart or lung disease, nonfatal heart attacks, irregular heartbeats, aggravated asthma, decreased lung function, and increased respiratory symptoms like irritation of the airways.
There is hope, according to Kevin. When asked about the causes of the lake’s shrinkage, Kevin stated that “the lake is shrinking because we divert too much water from snowpacks into rivers for other purposes before we divert that water into the lake.” In order for the lake to reach a steady, sustainable level, it needs to contain “130% of the snowpack,” says Kevin. We can’t necessarily predict or impact climate change to any noticeable degree, but we can change our overall water consumption. You’ve heard it all before: take shorter showers, use less water when doing the dishes, and, in the applicable months, refrain from dumping gallons of water on your lawn every morning. However cliche, this is all true, and, disregarding advocating for water-healthy policy at the local level, these are the best things we can do. Overall, Kevin is hopeful because “several politicians have voiced a need for change regarding the lake.” If enough Utahns are passionate and, more importantly, pragmatic enough about the issue, there is still time to mitigate and reduce any further damage. The damage isn’t necessarily on the shoulders of everyday citizens, the users of the water, but we’re the ones who will have to carry the burdens of this environmental crisis. Save your water.
In conclusion, the shrinking of the Great Salt Lake will, if no drastic action is taken, have terrifying, air-poisoning repercussions, spreading dangerous levels of particulate matter and arsenic into our air. Though larger, widescale and radical reform is needed, there are still things that you can do to diminish the effects. In short, do everything that scientists have been telling you to do for years. It is truly the least that we can do.