Pollution, Preservation, and Planting Seeds of Everlasting Impact
Isabella Errigo (’20) sits in a meeting with a state legislator while he manages a coughing attack. She tells him how Utah’s pollution is causing deaths across the state and shows him the scientific figures from her research. He waves her off, sure that she has a political agenda instead of a scientific motivation.
Errigo asks if he’s okay—he says that he’s fine; it’s just asthma and not the air pollution. She knows it is a “red” day for Utah, meaning the air is dangerous for vulnerable populations.
Contacting legislators was not on Errigo’s mind when she began studying environmental science, but when she saw the impact state policy could have on limiting pollution, decided to step in. After receiving a College Undergraduate Research Award (CURA) from the College of Life Sciences at BYU, Errigo used the funds to research the impact air pollution has on health. She discovered that air pollution is a main contributor to the deterioration of mental and physical health and is associated with death due to stroke and suicide. Her findings were published in Atmosphere, a peer-reviewed journal.
“I expected her to come back with some ideas on how to move forward. She, in the meantime, called forty or fifty members of Congress,” says Ben Abbott, Errigo’s mentor and a plant and wildlife sciences professor.
Errigo’s plan to affect state policy was daunting at first. “I never really learned about communicating with legislators or any policy protocol,” she says. Despite her fears, Errigo realized the impact she could have as a science student and a political constituent: all it took was one email, one phone call, one meeting to begin to change a mind. And many legislators listened and responded, citing Errigo’s published research as evidence for their proposed environmental policies to build a safer Utah.
Facts about Utah's air:
1. Out of all 50 states, Utah has the worst air quality.
2. Wildfires from across the western U.S. reduce Utah air quality.
3. One to two thousand deaths occur annually in Utah due to poor air quality.
4. Utah winters cause frequent inversions that keep gasoline, industrial waste, and diesel fuels in the air.
5. Pollutant particles can cause respiratory disease, heart attacks, and strokes.
However, Errigo still had several snags to work through. “It was really aggravating when people would dismiss these numbers that are based in science,” she says. "Whether it’s because they think I’m carrying a political agenda, or because they don’t understand the scientific process—instead of asking questions about the process, they just dismiss it as false.”
But Errigo’s paper also caught the eye of O2 Utah, a nonprofit whose goal is to improve Utah’s air. The organization has built their mission and policies around Errigo’s paper. And Errigo’s nontechnical report, which was given to all Utah legislators, is used in Utah universities.
“I care about how we can communicate these issues effectively, so people understand that it is a big deal,” she says. “And it’s not just a political stance . . . we really need to be protecting our planet. If we don’t protect the planet, we are killing ourselves.” Errigo’s paper explains the clear impacts that pollution has on the body and min —and what readers can do to help reduce those negative impacts.
Errigo’s passion for preservation has translated into additional projects. After using her CURA to fund the project on Utah air pollution, Errigo used the rest of the funds to conduct research outside of the United States. She went with one of her friends who also worked for Abbott to Guayaquil, Ecuador, to study water pathogens.
Transitioning from studying pollution in the air to diseases in the water, Errigo discovered that rivers running through Guayaquil contain a large number of fecal bacteria due to poor waste management. The city’s population—already suffering from impoverished conditions—now suffers from water-based diseases. So Errigo began another project to preserve cleanliness in rivers and streams.
Ecuador gave Errigo multiple opportunities to find solutions to problems as well as discover essential advisers in her journey to earning a Fulbright Scholarship. After her trip with her friend, Errigo had visited Ecuador again in September 2021. Plant and wildlife sciences professor Paul Frandsen offered her a spot on his field research team. For two weeks, Errigo worked in Quito and in the Amazon to study elevational transections. It was then that she knew she wanted to continue work in Ecuador long-term under the funding of a Fulbright—and Frandsen knew just the person to help. He introduced her to his colleague Blanca Rios-Touma, who became Errigo’s affiliate in the Fulbright Scholarship program. Rios-Touma and Errigo will go on to study the effects of land use on the Amazon’s aquatic biodiversity.
As a recipient of the prestigious Fulbright Scholarship, Errigo left for Ecuador last September and will live there for ten months—something she’s both excited and nervous about. While she already speaks Spanish and knows those she’ll be working with, she understands it will be “a humbling experience.” She also knows that she will develop abilities that will aid her in her future career and meet lifelong friends.
After Ecuador, Errigo plans on starting a PhD in the fall of 2023.
With all her initiative, whether that be changing Utah politics for the better or studying water preservation, Errigo will continue to influence whatever environment she steps foot in.
Tips to decrease
personal pollution:1. Turn off the car when you put it in park.
2. Take advantage of the public transportation rather than driving your car.
3. Avoid short car trips. The most pollution comes from the first and last few minutes of driving.
4. Carpool to work, and reduce overall vehicle emissions.
5. Prevent idling. Don't sit in your car and wait for the engine to heat it up since idling creates more pollution than driving creates.