During a 13-month strike at Orem’s Geneva Steel mill in the mid-1980s, a strange thing happened at Utah County hospital delivery rooms: The incidence of preterm births declined.
But the rate went back up after the plant went back on line, producing steel and massive amounts of particulate pollution.
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For some Utahns, inversion season is simply annoying. It means fewer outdoor exercise days, eye and throat irritation, and a less-than-picturesque view. For others, though, the cloud of pollution that clings to the valley floor is a serious threat that exacerbates existing health problems and makes Salt Lake City virtually unlivable in the winter months.
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Air-quality town hall
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This anomaly piqued the interest of University of Utah obstetrician Jeanette Chin, who wants to see what became of the children from pregnancies during the strike and when Geneva was dirtying the air. The plant’s closure has set up a "unique, natural experiment" to study the long-term health effects of prenatal exposure to air pollution, Chin says.
She is among a half-dozen U. researchers awarded seed grants under the university’s new interdisciplinary air-quality program. The grants total $165,000 and cover a range of inquiries aimed at understanding and addressing the consequences of Utah’s air pollution for human health.
"We would like to be a national center supported by federal grants to grow into a robust, long-term self-sustaining program. We hope the seed grants will lead to high-quality work and further support," said Robert Paine, a pulmonologist who directs the U.’s Program for Air Quality, Health, and Society.
The program is encouraging U. researchers to expand the scope of their investigations to include the particulate pollution that concentrates in Utah valleys every winter.
"For all the problems it causes it is also a tremendous opportunity to investigate air pollution in greater detail, how it’s generated, its atmospheric chemistry and health impacts," Paine said.
Chin and her research team will tap the Utah Population Database to identify Utah County women who were pregnant during the plant closure, which spanned the 1986-87 inversion season, and had another pregnancy while the plant was operating. Then they will compare these siblings’ subsequent health outcomes as documented in the database.
"We will look at whether being exposed in utero programmed them for long-term adverse health outcomes," Chin said. "If we find interesting results we would take a subset and try to contact them to obtain detailed information and blood samples."
Children born during the Geneva closure are turning 27 this year. Chin said the Utah Population Database is particularly helpful because those who grow up in Utah tend to stay in Utah as adults, making it easier to track them through life.
Another grant recipient is Hanseup Kim, an assistant professor of electrical engineering who is developing a hand-held device to monitor indoor levels of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) —carbon-based pollutants implicated in allergies and asthma.
VOC pollution can be 10 times higher indoors than outdoors, but no viable options for portable monitoring now exist, according to Kim’s proposal.
His U. grant will help advance his ongoing federally funded efforts to develop a wristwatch-size VOC detector, perhaps resulting in a functioning prototype.
The other grant recipients are Amanda Bakian, psychiatry, on suicide risk; Ramkiran Gouripeddi, bioinformatics, on integrating environmental and clinical data for air quality research; Cheryl Pirozzi, pulmonary medicine, on idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis; and Russell Richardson, internal medicine, on vascular function in chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.
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