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Wharton: Getting personal with inversions

Published February 6, 2013 12:34 pm

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

After spending 12 days in Mesquite, Nev., we recently returned to the Salt Lake Valley. As we drove over Point of the Mountain, my wife, Nancy, said she could smell the pollution.

I suspect that, like many Wasatch Front residents, I used to not think much about these inversions and the red air warnings the state issued. The valley looked awful and smelled bad, but could breathing really be that affected by the pollution?

It's funny how quickly your perspective can change.

I began to worry about the pollution when a co-worker of many years came down with a serious lung condition. I noticed that on bad inversion days, his cough was worse than normal.

Then my granddaughter who lives in Flagstaff, Ariz., and suffers from severe asthma would come to visit. My daughter commented that the inversions and pollution made her daughter's breathing that much more difficult.

A few years ago, I began experiencing shortness of breath. At first, my doctor and I attributed it to me being overweight. But the condition began to worsen, no matter what I did. Even walking up the stairs to my home office caused me to gasp for air.

A sleep specialist prescribed supplemental oxygen, especially when I slept. Then a lung specialist tested me. We tried some medications with little relief. I developed a nasty cough. Walking became an often painful chore.

Having climbed many of the Wasatch peaks and hiked all over the world, I was disgusted with myself for putting on the weight and falling out of shape. It never occurred to me that the pollution I could see and smell in the valley might be a contributing factor.

I purchased my own oximeter. Oxygen saturation is not supposed to dip below 90. Mine often hit the low 80s and even the mid-70s when I trudged up to my 47th-row seats at Rice-Eccles Stadium. Those low readings, I'm told, can be dangerous.

So I went back to the lung specialist. After a test that showed my lungs were operating at 46 percent of capacity and had deteriorated badly from the last test six months earlier, I was diagnosed with asthma, a disease I didn't think you could get at my age.

I can tell when the air quality is bad because it becomes even more difficult to get enough oxygen. These inversions now seem much more than an ugly inconvenience.

The question is what we can do, collectively and personally, to improve the air quality in a place where the climate and geography make solving the problem difficult.

I purchased a low-emission hybrid car in 2003. I drive it almost exclusively in the city. My "road" and "camp" vehicle is a 2006 pickup, another vehicle with a better-than-average emissions record. When my job and editor allow it, I also choose to telecommute more, which means working from home. I need a car for work most days, but I often opt to use TRAX to get around downtown or attend cultural events.

I honestly think Wasatch Front counties are headed to California-type laws where only certain types of vehicles can be sold and emissions inspections are even stricter than those we already have.

Collectively, we need to work to do everything possible to encourage industries such as Kennecott Utah Copper and the oil refineries north of Salt Lake City to eliminate as much pollution as possible.

It's unrealistic to shut down refineries that produce about 97 percent of the gasoline Utahns use or to put several thousand Kennecott workers on the unemployment lines. Call me a naïve optimist, but I think many of the refineries and the copper operation honestly try to eliminate as much pollution as possible. I hope they will be good corporate citizens and put the best pollution-elimination technology available in place. If it costs us more at the pump or when we buy copper products, so be it.

In a free society, I don't know how you force companies to do the right thing and individuals to make personal daily decisions for the common good.

This much I do know. The year-round inversion in the Salt Lake Valley seems to be getting worse, and it's a threat to many of us with breathing issues.

wharton@sltrib.com

Twitter: @tribtomwharton