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Air Quality Blog

Utah High School Clean Air Poster Contest: Educating teens has surprising results

By Faith Eherts, AccuWeather meteorologist
2/01/2019, 5:07:49 AM

In an effort to tackle individual contributions to regional pollution and a general ambivalence to poor air quality in the Salt Lake City area, one program is focusing on the city's teenagers and future drivers.

One of the largest contributors to poor air quality in this inter-mountain city is vehicle emissions. To nip this problem in the bud, two colleagues from the Jon M. Huntsman School of Business and Extension Sustainability at Utah State University have focused their efforts on teenagers obtaining their drivers licenses.

Through the annual Utah High School Clean Air Poster Contest, Dr. Edwin Stafford and Dr. Roslynn Brain McCann have encouraged teens that are learning to drive to research local air quality, its sources, health impacts, and mitigation methods.

SLC AQ 2 jan.31

Despite having some of the nation's worst winter air quality, "Utahns tend to be ambivalent about it – either dismissing its health effects or believing it is largely beyond their control," Stafford said.

Poster examples available back to 2015 show that many teens did thorough research on their local air quality trends and its health impacts that they otherwise may not have taken the time to do. By focusing on teens, this contest has created a generation that will spend their lives more aware of their personal impact on air quality than any before them.

The air quality knowledge and mitigation tactics they learned were expressed in dramatic, educational, and aesthetically pleasing poster submissions that were often "edgy, terrifying and tied to teen pop culture."

SLC poster contest 1 Jan31

When the contest was initiated in 2015, teen participants were surveyed regarding whether or not, and with whom, they discussed local air pollution and emission-reducing behaviors as a result of the contest.

An encouraging two-thirds of the contestants reported discussing pollution and its effects with family and friends in 2017, which led to a survey for parents the following year. This survey revealed that about 70 percent of parents reported that their teens had brought up the topic to them (and very few considered it an annoyance!).

According to Stafford, "statistical analysis found that parents reported that they were most influenced into changing their own driving behaviors when their teens talked to them about specific actions for preserving air quality."

This was dubbed the "Inconvenient Youth" effect, which refers to adults responding to pressure from teens to meet certain societal expectations in order to "maintain the youths' respect". In this case, parents claim to make more of an effort to carpool, take public transportation, and to not idle their vehicles.

slc aq 3 jan31

It also proves that targeting teens can potentially lead to societal changes not just in their generation, but also in other, less-accessible ones.

Educating adults about air quality has proved a complicated issue - most are busy, uninterested and difficult to reach through one medium - but this study implies that encouraging a younger generation to take this threat seriously and to act on it on a daily basis may be the key to ending the population's indifference to this problem.

Since other studies have reached different conclusions about teen's knowledge transfer to their parents, future studies are planned about exactly which factors encouraged teens to discuss pollution and driving habits with their families.

slc aq 4 jan31

Salt Lake City has historically suffered from poor air quality during the cold winter months due to stubborn inversions within the valley. Emissions from vehicles, factories, homes and businesses build up in the stagnant air under this inversion, trapping the city in its own smog for days and even weeks at a time.

While gusty winter storms can briefly relieve residents of this choking air, it will take massive changes in the city's industry and transportation policies for significant, long-lasting improvements to take hold.

Regardless, decreasing the number of vehicles on the road and each vehicle's individual emissions undoubtedly does have a positive impact, especially as the number of residents making a conscious effort to decrease their personal footprint rises.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of AccuWeather, Inc. or


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Air Quality Blog