My bad air day: Utah doc: More illness, depression in inversions
Health • Family physician wonders how living in the Salt Lake Valley impacts his patients’ health.
Published: January 27, 2014 08:29PM
Updated: January 27, 2014 11:31AM
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Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune Dr. Jason Hamula who's family practice is located just miles from Hawthorne Elementary where scientific equipment is recording data on the pollution in the valley, talks about the health issues he has seen. He says: "I'm well aware of the health effects of particulates - I see it a lot this time of year in my practice as a Family Physician."

The Salt Lake Tribune invited Utahns to share their stories of how Utah’s polluted air affects their lives.

Here are some of those “My Bad Air Day” stories, with some minor editing.

Please, continue to share by sending more observations to utairquality@sltrib.com.

You also may send questions you’d like to have addressed at The Tribune/KCPW air quality town hall meeting at 7 p.m. Jan. 29 at the Salt Lake City Main Library.

‘Action must be taken.’

Tim Beardmore, Salt Lake City

I am a 26-year-old engineer, and my wife is a 27-year-old research associate. We moved to Salt Lake City for better quality of life. We are both very active and enjoy the outdoors. We are currently looking to change our jobs to move away from SLC due to the poor air quality.

What is the point of eating well and exercising if one is breathing in carcinogenic substances all day long?

Action must be taken by our local government to fix this. My thoughts are that this will not happen until it is too late. I believe many more professionals like my wife and I will leave Salt Lake due to this persistent problem.

‘I start to see more people struggling’

Physician Jason Hamula, Salt Lake City

My bad air day starts often the night before when I lay out my clothes for the next day’s work. I usually ride my bike to work and I like to check the weather in order to know how many layers I might need to wear. During inversions the weather doesn’t fluctuate much so I usually already know it’s going to be cold. I have a short commute so it’s not a big deal to just throw another layer on if necessary. But increasingly I’m having to also consider the next day’s air quality in order to decide whether even to ride at all or to take the bus.

I’m well aware of the health effects of particulates — I see it a lot this time of year in my practice as a family physician. I’ve been in practice in the Salt Lake Valley for almost 15 years, and there are regular patterns to what affects people’s health throughout the year. Accidents and injuries are common during the summer months when people are more active, for example. Shortly after the weather cools and the holidays begin, the respiratory infections and flus start to show up and continue through the winter months.

When the inversions come, I see many more irritant-related lung and sinus problems like asthma, bronchitis, and emphysema exacerbations. The longer the inversions remain, I start to see more people struggling with depression. One patient I saw last week came in with asthma problems despite taking her medications as she’s supposed to. She tries to avoid the outdoors when the inversions settle in. She grew up in Hawaii and says that she would always have the same problems when the winds from neighboring islands would carry volcano ash toward where she lived.

As more and more evidence reveals other health conditions potentially linked to unhealthy air, I often ask myself whether the young child I see with autism, or the father who’s had a heart attack recently, or the elderly woman who’s never smoked but developed lung cancer, might have resulted from living in this valley. And if I think longer about it, I start to ask myself whether I might have contributed to their problems by living and driving in this valley. My occupation and life work is centered in helping others get and stay healthy, so even that very small possibility is hard for me to think too long about.

That in no small part has played a role in my decision to bicycle to work, plus the personal benefits of being more physically active. But increasingly I ask myself whether those benefits of riding my bike to work outweigh the health risks I take on by riding through and breathing in the muck. Or whether living so close to the mountains I love to spend time in is worth the two years of diminished lifespan that’s estimated to result of my living so close to them, especially when for so many weeks of the year I can’t even see them.

When I was a boy, my father made the hard decision to move us from the Los Angeles basin where he had a well-established and successful business, here to Utah. He always said it was because of the better quality of life here, including air quality. It’s curious to me and somewhat depressing to think that if the air here doesn’t improve, that I might need to make what would be a similarly difficult decision for the best interests of my family. It’s getting that bad.

‘I begin to breathe with an irritating wheeze’

Sean Landis, Draper

I suffer from mild asthma and some allergies. Most of the year they are under control but I can tell whenever we are under yellow alert. I begin to breathe with an irritating wheeze, and I notice my allergies will flare up. Sometimes I must use an inhaler before bed so that I am not kept awake from the tightness in my chest.

The other thing my body notices is the burning in my eyes. I use a computer all day and when the air quality is poor, my eyes burn and become weepy by the time I drive home.

The psychological affects are present, too. I find a few consecutive days of gloom to be depressing. My energy level drops, and my will to tackle challenges goes down.

‘We’re in a crisis situation’

Christie Babalis, Park City

Most people in the Salt Lake Valley will feel some negative effects from Utah’s bad air. I now live in Park City (after 35 years in Salt Lake) so I am not as impacted as some, but my children spend two days a week in Salt Lake. They go there to spend time with their grandparents, their aunt, uncle and cousin. They are 2 and 5 years old.

Lately, we don’t visit Salt Lake as much. The kids love to play outside and it just isn’t appealing to do that in Salt Lake on many days. They see their relatives a lot less than they used to and that makes them sad. It’s hard for my parents to drive to Park City and I’m not willing to take the kids to Salt Lake where they can’t play outside without unhealthy consequences. I also don’t like contributing to the smog by driving down there twice a week.

I used to consider Salt Lake one of the most beautiful cities because of the rim of mountains surrounding it. Now, all I see is the pollution, sprawl and strip malls. It’s too bad the planners didn’t have enough foresight to encourage the design and development of walkable communities. I don’t really like Salt Lake anymore and I have friends who used to visit each year to ski who don’t want to come here anymore because of how “dirty” it is.

I miss the Salt Lake I used to know. I remember walking everywhere as a kid and playing in Sugar House and Liberty parks. My kids will never have a bond to Salt Lake nor will they ever see it as the beautiful city it once was. I know people say that the air is cleaner now but I don’t know if I agree. It sure looks a lot dirtier and there are definitely a lot more cars everywhere you go. It used to be that kids would go to the school that was closest to their house and they walked there. Now, you pick and choose which school you go to, even if it means driving 25 miles each way to get there. We just haven’t planned very well to limit our reliance on cars.

Every time I go to the bank drive-up, I turn off my car. I never keep my car running if I know it is going to be more than about a 20- to 30-second wait. When I see people idling, I politely ask them to consider turning off their cars while they wait. I usually get yelled at, sworn at or told to mind my own business. We all know the air is a problem but people are too afraid of taking away or losing their freedoms to do the things that will really help. Well guess what, it’s not that much different than telling people they can’t smoke in a restaurant. We’re in a crisis situation with our air and our quality of life. It’s time for drastic measures – by everyone. A little inconvenience won’t kill us, but doing nothing will. Pass laws, give tickets, inconvenience us – do whatever needs to be done if it means we can have clean air to breathe and a beautiful place to live again.

Anything less than measures that force a cultural shift away from our reliance on cars is not enough. I wish we had some leaders who could prioritize health and quality of life issues over weird phobias about who someone they have never met chooses to marry.

“My mom and sister missed my wedding’

Kathleen Murphy, Salt Lake City

My bad air day was my wedding day, Jan. 22, 2005. Due to a thick, lingering inversion that prevented all but the biggest jumbo jets to land at Salt Lake’s airport, my mom and sister missed my wedding.

My out-of-town guests who did manage to make it to Utah were astonished to discover not the pristine mountain setting they had eagerly anticipated but a dreary gray landscape blanketed with smelly air.

‘I love the euphemism’

Rita Marie Kelly, Millcreek

I love the euphemism, “inversion.” It sounds so benign.

When I first saw it, I called it smog. I guess that’s because I’m from California, where we tell when the emperor is buck naked.

For me, winter means months of wheezing, watering, itchy eyes, colds that go into pneumonia, increased asthma and just general malaise.

Other than that, I feel wonderful.

‘We will all die sooner’

Jean Lown, Logan

Having lived in Cache Valley for 30 years and been involved in trying to influence the Cache County Council and other local politicians to address the air pollution, I concluded that there is no chance of improvement in the foreseeable future.

For about a decade I’ve attended forums to learn about the local air pollution problem and potential solutions. I’ve written letters to the editor, attended county council meetings, written to and talked with council members and all I see is a red-neck anti-government attitude reflecting the local electorate. Those who are most against the federal government, the nasty EPA and its onerous regulations will easily be re-elected by thoughtless voters who simply check the one “R” box for a straight ticket.

I initiated and managed a “Clear the Air” contest for Utah State University students in January-February 2013 and raised funds for cash prizes for the best ideas and posters designed to educate students and the public about the problem and how to reduce the pollution. I contacted C. Arden Pope at BYU to get his permission to name the contest after him, with the hopes that the local populace would take a more open-minded view of the air pollution problem if they knew a Brigham Young University professor was a world-renowned researcher on Utah’s toxic problem. Pope graciously agreed and awarded the prizes at the March seminar.

I’m annoyed with the Utah Division of Air Quality that publicizes that our toxic air is only bad for certain vulnerable groups. NO level of PM2.5 is safe and the World Health Organization sets the exposure limit at 25 micrograms per cubic centimeter, substantially below the EPA limit. It is simply false to tell the public that moderate to high levels of PM2.5 are only a concern for “sensitive groups.”

Although ridership on Cache Valley’s free (sales tax supported) bus system rises slightly during the inversions, the parking lots at USU are just as full on red air days as any other. The number of huge diesel pickup trucks, big contributors to the problem, has exploded over the past decade. During the worst inversions when we have the most toxic air in the nation (probably second only to Beijing in the world), the lines at the bank and fast food drive-thrus are long, vehicles are idling in front of stores all around town and even in front of the “Blue Goes Green, No Idling Zone” signs on the USU campus, students sit in their T-shirts and shorts idling their vehicles. Today while I washed my car the huge diesel pickup in the next bay idled the entire time the owner was washing it.

For the past 30 years I’ve chosen to live within walking/biking distance of my work and rarely drive to campus. In the fall of 2012 we bought solar panels and a plug-in Prius (to replace our “regular” Prius vehicle). We’ve spoken out and invested in clean technology.

With spineless politicians, clueless public and no hope of improvement in sight I’m taking early phased retirement from USU to be able to escape the toxic winter air. I’m teaching fall semester but not spring. This year we are leaving Logan for St. George in January and February, where I can continue my research and writing but breathe much cleaner air. I realize I am fortunate to be able to escape the winter inversions. I only wish that in a state that claims to value its children that parents and grandparents would take their responsibility to clean up the air for their loved ones. It’s so easy to claim that Utah is family friendly but I sure would not move here with young children knowing what I do about the toxic air.

The Cache Chamber of Commerce plans to spend half a million dollars to encourage more people to move to the valley. With 30,000 more residents projected by the next census, with an additional 10,000 or so vehicles, the consequences for air quality are truly frightening.

Contrary to what the Cache County Council would like residents to believe, our air quality problems are unhealthful for everyone, not just the elderly, children, and asthmatics. BYU’s Pope is internationally known for his research linking PM 2.5 pollution to cardiopulmonary health. We will all die sooner because of the toxic air we breathe during winter inversions. In the meantime we all pay more for the negative health effects. Pope’s research unequivocally links particulate pollution with respiratory illness in children and adults, cardiopulmonary mortality in adults, “respiratory hospitalizations, lung function and respiratory symptoms, school absences, and mortality.”

Read a summary of the health effects of PM 2.5 by Pope and Douglas Dockery of the Harvard School of Public Health. Pope and Dockery report “health effects at unexpectedly low concentrations of ambient PM.” It’s not just the “red” air days that are bad for anyone who breathes. Further, the effects are cumulative. County Executive Lynn Lemon has lost all credibility when he claims that our air in only unhealthy for a few days a year. During the winter of 2012-2013 the PM2.5 was off the charts (literally).

Utahns who ignore the problem and continue to re-elect the same old reactionary politicians deserve what they get. Too bad for their children and grandchildren and other people who are trying to make a difference. I’m fortunate to be able to escape in the winter. I realize it is not the solution. The solution is to kick out almost all the current crop of politicians and elect some enlightened, educated replacements. I won’t hold my breath; I’ll be dead long before that happens. In the meantime, it’s long past time for the business and education leaders to recognize that the toxic air repels potential employees from out of state. Well-educated young friends of ours with a year-old son recently left for a job in New Zealand. It’s the best educated who will leave the state. The most recent search committee I served on at USU, where candidates visited during inversions, failed because candidates refused to move here with their young children.

‘The black oily residue is on everything’

Kim Pugmire, North Salt Lake

I live in Camelot Mobile Home Park in North Salt Lake. I have lived here 13 years. The first 10 years the air was questionable but these past three have been frightening!

I have to change my three-month furnace filter every month because of the black oily residue my furnace pulls in. I have permanent black stains around my vents and washing walls and mirrors is a regular job. I have cleaning rags that cannot be cleaned with bleach and hot water. Just last week I stepped out the back door and was met by a smell that made me think I was standing in the refinery.

During the summer, I have to wash a chair every day just to sit on my front porch. The black oily residue is on everything. It bothers me that the governor has allowed these refineries to increase the amount of pollutants.

‘I wanted to do more’

Betsy Brunner, Salt Lake City

I moved to Salt Lake City in 2011 in the Avenues neighborhood to begin my doctorate in communications at the University of Utah. The U. of U. Communications Department happens to be one of the best places to go for those studying environmental communication.

I am a very active outdoorsy person and was very happy to discover upon moving that I was just minutes away from the Bonneville Shoreline Trail. Almost every day, I would ride my mountain bike up “I” Street to the trail and continue along the ridge. When the inversions began, I found that my daily ride afforded me a wonderful view of the layer of smog that sat atop our city. I didn’t understand at first what that smog was doing to me.

After looking into matters about where our pollution comes from (driving, Kennecott, Stericycle), I became increasingly angered that my air and the air of everyone around me was being sacrificed for financial gain from a few companies whose leaders did not have to huff the smog. I was motivated to do something about it. I started small by creating holiday postcards people could send to Kennecott thanking them for their contribution to our smog-soaked city. Bill McKibben, Terry Tempest Williams, and a number of others signed and sent these cards.

But this was not enough. I wanted to do more. With the help of my adviser, I applied for and received a Sustainable Campus Initiative Fund grant from the U. of U. to bring three artists from Beijing (our sister city in smog) as well as one artist from Taiwan (Taipei also suffers from similar geographically exacerbated pollution) to help us visualize air pollution. The artists will be working on campus in the Gittins Gallery to transform the blank walls into a discussion about air pollution. We want to bridge the gap between art and life and raise awareness about the issues. We want to make art that makes a difference. We are inviting the community to get involved by coming in to talk to them, help create work and really begin to make change. We have a website with more information.

We would love your help letting people know about this important project. As one protestor’s sign read during a recent Stericycle protest: “If you breathe, it’s your problem, too.” I firmly believe that solving this problem is about making radical changes (like Beijing is doing and Mexico City has done). We live in one of the most beautiful places in the world. In order for us all to live a healthy life, we need to make sacrifices to preserve our air, and not simply small ones.

‘It creates a disgusting mess’

Linda White, Tooele

First of all, I must say I feel guilty about driving a 60-mile commute each day from Tooele County to Salt Lake for work. I lived in Murray previously and my commute was five minutes. I regret the move.

Secondly, the picture on the front page of the Salt Lake Tribune on Jan. 7 is exactly what I want to discuss. The photographer happened to find a clear day for this photo, but when the wind blows over the tailings pond from the north or south (and it blows hard and often in that area), it creates a disgusting mess for anyone who happens to be in its path.

If you are driving along the north side of the tailings pond and the wind is blowing from the south, it is like driving through a January FOG. Visibility is next to zero. If the wind is blowing from the north, it funnels up the Oquirrh Mountains and people I know who live in Magna and near the Daybreak area say they are in a nasty dust bowl.

That crap blows to the north or to the south for miles. It blows over and into the Great Salt Lake and beyond. It filters into garden soil where people plant the food they eat, and onto lawns and school playgrounds where kids play, and probably most importantly, into every lung in its path. Who knows what toxic metal or chemical is in that huge pile of dust. Even if there isn’t one toxin in the pile, the blowing dust makes the air filthy. But really, what is in the pile?

At some point, will the Great Salt Lake be so full of “who knows what” that it will be declared off limits and hazardous and the end of a great recreational area? The groups of folks that race and ride their bikes on the frontage road next to the lake have to hide out in their automobiles at the risk of being sand-blasted and/or smothered during the dust storms. Drivers can’t see the road and need to keep windows up and air-conditioning turned off to keep the crap out of their vehicles and lungs.

Last year, it appeared to me that Kennecott attempted to plant grass (or something) on the north side of the tailings pond/pile. For a short time the side of the tailings pond turned green and I was optimistic that a solution had perhaps been found. It seemed like it could have been a good idea at the time, and perhaps may have been helpful in keeping the dust down but it didn’t work. It looks like whatever was planted didn’t live and/or was buried by the tailings dust blowing over the edge of the pile. The dust just continues to blow out, over and up into the air. I did appreciate the effort at the time, though.

If Kennecott proceeds with the expansion it will pollute more gardens, playgrounds, rivers and lakes — and all of Utah’s air. Your air and mine (no pun intended).