If your eyes are watering, your throat is scratchy and, generally, your head feels like you spent all of last night in a smoky dance hall, minus the fun, welcome to the Salt Lake Valley in winter. Breathing the air here during a wintertime inversion feels a lot like breathing secondhand smoke, and, unfortunately, your body is getting the same kind of poison.
When nature brings us a high-pressure ridge, all the carbon dioxide and other toxic gases from vehicle exhaust, industrial polluters and power plants are held in the valley, and the more we produce, the thicker it gets, since the air doesn't move up and away. On Sunday, parts of northern Utah and southern Idaho were ranked No. 1 in the country for unhealthy air. It was a "red" air-quality day for five Utah counties; Monday was no better. The Beehive State has earned other top national rankings -- happiest state, best-managed -- but this one we could do without.
Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment says the levels of PM 2.5 that Wasatch Front residents inhale during an inversion threatens not only the old, the young and people with heart and lung problems, but damages the hearts and lungs of everyone. In fact, this concentration of pollutants can be, and has been, lethal.
The physician group's president, Brian Moench, has said valley smog affects healthy hearts and lungs in the same way cigarette smoke does and it worsens asthma and respiratory problems. He blames "environmental conditions," including polluted air, for 80-90 percent of all cancers.
Still, everybody talks about the gunk, but is there anything we can do about it?
Immediately, the best thing to do is to drive less. Vehicles are among the biggest contributors of PM 2.5, and the more of them on the road, the worse the air. The Utah Division of Air Quality urges people to stay indoors as much as possible, especially those with lung or heart problems. Overworked teachers will have to keep squirming children in classrooms or gymnasiums instead of sending them outside for recess.
The long-term solutions are to use public transit more often, drive cleaner vehicles and don't let vehicles idle. Company, utility and government fleets should shift to natural-gas or electric-powered vehicles. People should live closer to where they work. Industrial polluters should abide by stricter emission standards and governments should offer incentives for voluntary pollution-cutting measures.
These nasty "red" days are likely to get more common as Utah's population grows, if regulations and individual habits don't change. And they're killing us.