Record low water levels in the Great Salt Lake have exposed cancer-causing arsenic in the soil that has been described as an “environmental nuclear bomb”.
The western hemisphere’s largest saltwater lake has shrunk to just one third of its capacity, uncovering high levels of the carcinogenic chemical and other dangerous metals in the 800 miles of exposed playa.
Wind storms are then carrying these lethal materials into the lungs of local residents as toxic dust, gravely threatening the 2.5 million residents who live nearby in Salt Lake City, Utah, and other surrounding neighbourhoods.
Dr Kevin Perry has walked every inch of the ground exposed by the shrinking of the historic lake, and first discovered the arsenic as part of his 2019 soil survey.
The University of Utah professor told The Telegraph: “The risk is real. If people are exposed to these dust storms over a long period of time, for a decade or more, that can lead to lung cancer, skin cancer, bladder cancer and diabetes.”
And research by Dr Robert Gillies, Utah’s state climatologist, found the threat of these exposed carcinogenic materials is being heightened by a trend of stronger winter storms.
“More intense storms means high winds that have the potential to whip up more dust and chemicals from the Great Salt Lake,” he explained.
As well as the public health crisis, scientists are warning the lake’s flies and brine shrimp are at risk, threatening the 10 million migratory birds that stop annually to feed at the lake. And the lucrative extraction of magnesium and other minerals, just one part of the £1 billion industry surrounding the 1,700 square-mile lake’s ecosystem, is also under threat.
Salt Lake City had the most buoyant property market in the US last year, boosted by a pandemic property boom with families leaving larger cities and attracted to the skiing, hiking, fishing and other outdoor pursuits on offer.
Utah’s population has grown by nearly 20 per cent in the last decade, making it the country’s fastest-growing state. But this population growth is putting pressure on the natural resources that appealed to the new residents.
And while climate change is contributing, experts state the dominant reason for the crisis is excessive water use. Utah is the second driest state in the US, after Nevada, yet a 2015 report found their water consumption per person was the highest in the country.
Attention surrounding the toxic dust has led to the residents and local legislators taking notice, and on Thursday the US Senate passed Senator Mitt Romney’s Great Salt Lake Recovery Act to protect the health of the crucial body of water.
Local Republican lawmaker Timothy Hawkes told The Telegraph: “The air quality is driving a new level of concern for your average person who has never waded around or been bird watching in the Great Salt Lake.”
Republican state representative Joel Ferry said: “We have this potential environmental nuclear bomb that’s going to go off if we don’t take some pretty dramatic action.”
Many are pointing towards Owens Lake in California as a real example of the potential worst case scenario for the area. Los Angeles diverted water from the lake in the early 1900s to service their growing population, causing the lake, which once covered more than 100 square miles, to dry up.
The area remains the worst source of dust pollution in the US, with locals suffering from a variety of health problems, some fatal, as a result.
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