When it comes to air quality, stick with the simple, hard truths

This is one in a series of stories about a clean air symposium held at the University of Utah on Oct. 3, 2019.The article was written by University of Utah Communications and published in @theu November 13, 2019.

Here’s what Keith Bartholomew tells his students: When it comes to Utah’s air pollution, it’s your job to be simultaneously Chicken Little and Pollyanna.

That mixture of alarm and hopefulness about the future of Utah’s dirty air was clear at the recent symposium “The Air We Breathe,” at the University of Utah. The daylong event focused both on dire data and the need for collaboration between scientists, planners, academics and health professionals.

One of the realities about air pollution is that scientists still don’t understand the complex chemistry of smog, nor the complex mechanisms that lead from pollutants to disease. The flip side is that Utah provides unique “exposure opportunities” to measure those pollutants and study the people affected by it, noted participants in a Scientific Cooperation panel moderated by Diane Pataki, associate vice president for research and professor of biology.

The bad news: “If you live in a place where air quality is worse, your mortality is higher,” said Rob Paine, pulmonary and critical care specialist in the U’s School of Medicine, citing the Harvard School of Public Health’s Six Cities study. “We’ve looked at it a gazillion different ways, and the data is solid.”

Air pollution impacts disease in multiple organ systems—not just the lungs (lung cancer, COPD, asthma) but also bone metabolism, vascular disease, diabetes and depression. “Some seminal work from this valley has shown if you increase PM 2.5 levels by about 10 micrograms per liter, it increases the rate of heart attacks by about 4%,” Paine said. But how pollutants target organ systems beyond the lungs is still a mystery.

To effect change in public behaviors and public policy about air quality, the message should come back, always, to health, he added. “Stick with the simple, hard truths. And say it over and over again.”

Christopher Reilly, associate professor of pharmacology and toxicology, reported that his department has received two NIEHS grants that will focus on understanding the mechanisms that lead from dirty air to damaged health.

Most of the pollution in the Salt Lake Valley is created “secondarily,” after emissions enter the atmosphere, although the chemistry is still not understood, said Jon Lin, professor in the U’s Department of Atmospheric Sciences.

The hopeful news: At the national level, average air quality has gotten better, in large part because of the Clean Air Act. “It shows there is action you can take to improve air quality,” Lin noted.

At the macro and micro level, improvements to city planning and building construction can make a difference too, said Bartholomew, associate professor in the Department of City and Metropolitan Planning.

“Transportation is now the single largest sector of the economy leading to air quality problems,” he noted. On the macro level, increased housing density leads to a decrease in car use. On the micro-level, sheltered bus stops instead of the “pole in the puddle model” have led to twice the number of riders compared to a control group.

The U’s scientists need to work together to solve Utah’s bad air, the panel agreed, rather than working in their individual silos. “Gatherings like this,” said Reilly, “need to be a lot more frequent.”

SIMPLE QUESTION LEADS TO BIG SAVINGS IN FURNITURE SWAP

By Liz Ivkovich, Sustainability Office.

The University saved more than $120,000 by sharing office furniture between departments. 

With the University’s exponential growth, campus departments expand accordingly. When they get too big for their old spaces they may move around campus in search of a better fit. Despite the best efforts of the University to reuse and resell, limited storage and varying furniture needs sometimes make it impossible to keep existing furniture. So, what happens next?

Staff members from University Hospital Information Technology Services and Procurement and Contracting Services (otherwise known as Purchasing) found one answer: sharing furniture across departments, giving a new life to existing cubicles, and saving the University $120,000.

Glendon Mitchell, director of Procurement and Contracting Services, is excited about this accomplishment.

“We think this is such a huge win for the University that hopefully can be repeated in the future,” he said. “It was a significant cost savings for the University, and environmentally, we were able to repurpose two complete suites of furniture that probably would have ended up in the landfill.”

Vice President for Administrative Services John Nixon & Glendon Mitchell, director of Procurement and Contracting Services, examine the new office.

When University Hospital Information Technology Services planned its move from 650 Komas to a new space, the existing systems furniture of cubicle units, prefab walls, and desk attachments was not going to be able to come along. Alison Plummer, architectural project manager for University of Utah Health Sciences, was tasked to get rid of it.

University Surplus & Salvage, which stores and sells surplus furniture, did not have space to store the more than 80 cubicles worth of furniture. Frustrated by the waste and cost to disassemble, recycle, and landfill the old furniture system, Plummer went on the hunt for a more sustainable alternative.

Meanwhile, across campus, Procurement and Contracting Services was moving in with P Card and U Shop staff in the basement of the Park building. The existing furniture in their new space did not provide adequate privacy for the sensitive nature of their work. These 33 staff would need new cubicles, a projected cost of $125,000–$150,000.

Michelle Entwistle, buyer for Procurement and Contracting Services, was working on the Park building move when she got a call from Plummer. Plummer asked Entwistle if there was a process or procedure Hospital Information Technology Services should follow to remove and recycle their furniture. “There are no rules or guidelines,” Entwhistle replied. “But we’re moving, and we need the furniture!”

A uniquely large-scale furniture transfer was born.

“It was a perfect alignment of conversation and timing,” Entwistle commented.

Entwistle connected with Evelyn Garlington, associate director for Space Planning & Management, to help with the logistics. Garlington and the rest of the Space Planning team coordinate all moves on lower campus, drawing plans and supporting the move process, including by helping departments to obtain and arrange the furniture they need.

When departments move around campus, Space Planning’s first stop is to reuse or repurpose. But systems furniture on this scale is a difficult proposition. In addition to the storage space required, these systems are very difficult to reassemble.

“Once you take the furniture down, and it’s stacked up and stored in hundreds of parts and pieces, it becomes problematic to figure out how to put it back together,” Garlington explained.

Office plans on the door of the new space.

Despite these challenges, Garlington, Mitchell, Entwistle, and Plummer worked together to the make the furniture transfer happen. They contracted systems furniture experts Utah Office Planning to move, clean, and reassemble the furniture in the Park building. They also sold additional items that couldn’t be used.

“Nothing went to waste,” Garlington said.

After all the math is said and done, the University saved at least $120,000 through the combined efforts of Plummer, Entwistle, Mitchell, and Garlington.

Mitchell credits teamwork for this sustainability success, especially the support of Vice President for Administrative Services John Nixon, and Associate Vice President of Financial and Business Services Jeffrey West.

“Everyone on the team was really committed to this project. Michelle and Alison made the connection, Evelyn and Space Planning helped us plan it, and John Nixon and Jeff West gave us the green light and the funding to make it happen,” Mitchell concluded.

We love to tell these kind of sustainability success stories. If you or your team have a win to share, contact Liz Ivkovich at liz.ivkovich@utah.edu.