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(Al Hartmann | The Salt Lake Tribune) A woman walks her dog along the track at 11th Avenue Park just above the polluted air buiding up in dowtntown Salt Lake City Monday morning December 30. The Utah Division of Air Quality rated the air in the orange range with a health advisory for elderly and persons with existing heart or lung disease to stay indoors and reduce physical activity.
How does Utah’s bad air hurt our health?
Air quality » Research shows pollution can aggravate existing health conditions, but studies now probe whether exposure can cause disease directly.
First Published Jan 26 2014 01:01 am • Last Updated Mar 24 2014 11:35 pm

Hawthorne Elementary Principal Marian Broadhead’s voice crackles over the intercom with an afternoon announcement: The air quality has worsened since morning, she says, and students with asthma or colds should stay inside for recess.

A bell sounds and nine children tumble to a bench in the hall outside Broadhead’s office where they quietly read. Others stay in their classrooms and draw or play games.

At a glance

About this series

This is the second in an occasional series of stories examining Utah’s air quality through the monitoring station collecting data at Hawthorne Elementary School, 1675 S. 600 East in Salt Lake City, and the surrounding community.

The air at Hawthorne Elementary is much the same as the rest of Utah’s urban valleys — but the school is the focus of some of the most crucial air monitoring research in the state. Read our previous story here.

Air quality town hall

The Salt Lake Tribune’s Jennifer Napier-Pearce will moderate a town-hall discussion on Utah’s air quality challenges with a panel of experts at 7 p.m. Jan. 29 in the Salt Lake City Main Library, 210 E. 400 South. The discussion will be broadcast live on KCPW 88.3/105.3 FM and at sltrib.com. You can submit questions in advance by sending an email to utairquality@sltrib.com.

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Among those stuck inside: 9-year-old Soren Bell, who was recently diagnosed with asthma and shyly acknowledges he’d rather be playing "fire demons," a modified game of tag, with his friends.

Indoor-recess policies are a new phenomenon — a reminder for parents of the price their children are paying for modern fossil-fueled conveniences. It’s disruptive for teachers who use that time to prepare lessons and an example of the health trade-offs all Wasatch Front residents make during those stagnant stretches of winter when toxic pollutants pool in the valley.

"It’s disheartening. I’m the parent who says, ‘When it’s snowing, send them out’ because exercise is so important for growing bodies and brains," said Soren’s mother, Saralinda Bell.

Utah’s decade-old recess guidelines were updated in 2008 and developed using data collected by measuring the indoor-air quality and lung capacity of students at Hawthorne and other schools.

They are a blunt instrument, say health experts, but the best they can be, given what’s known about pollution’s health harms.

"We know air pollution is bad for human health," said Robert Paine, a pulmonologist at the University of Utah who heads up an interdisciplinary center that funds air quality research.

But there are no data to define safe pollution thresholds, whether for a healthy adult, a young child or an ailing grandparent, he said.

Is 20 minutes of outdoor exercise safe, or none at all? What’s the fallout from a lifetime of "moderate" exposure? And what about people living near a refinery or major roadway who are exposed all the time?

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"We don’t regulate or assess that," said Michelle Hofmann, a pediatrician and clean-air advocate who helped with the update of Utah’s recess guidelines and has pushed for more air monitoring and better air filtration in public schools near highways and freeways.

"These are the kinds of conversations that are happening now," she said.

Even with a growing population and expanding transportation corridor, the Salt Lake Valley’s air has improved since passage of the federal Clean Air Act in 1970. Future regulatory fixes will have to be more "prescriptive," said Hofmann.

But families living under the haze can’t shake the feeling that it’s getting worse — perhaps because our understanding of pollution’s health perils has grown more expansive and alarming.

‘We need to pay attention’ » Saralinda Bell wonders if pollution could have triggered Soren’s asthma. His attacks are generally brought on by seasonal allergies, said Bell, noting asthma runs in the family. "My mother has it," she said, "so maybe he’s susceptible."

Jenne Parsons, the mother of two Hawthorne students, can’t help but think exposure during her pregnancy may have something to do with her 14-year-old son’s autism. "In my generation, only one member of my family is on the [autism] spectrum. But in the next generation there are four on the spectrum, including nieces and nephews."

Hawthorne’s playground abuts 700 East, a heavily traveled, six-lane highway that at rush hour is backed up with idling cars and trucks. Scores of Utah schools are similarly situated along transportation corridors.

"It’s like any other school where parents struggle to balance doing their part to improve air quality, such as walking or using the bus, with the reality of, ‘How do I get my child to school on time?’" said Hawthorne parent Stephen Bloch, an attorney for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance.

For Bloch’s 10-year-old son, bad-air days bring occasional complaints of a scratchy throat, red eyes or a cold that lingers longer than usual. "But when January rolls around, you think, ‘What am I doing in Salt Lake City? Am I taking days, months or years off my kids’ lives?’ " he said.

Paine, who directs the U.’s Program for Air Quality, Health and Society, would like to see researchers exploit Utah’s hunger for local solutions and its natural, mountain-rimmed exposure chamber to answer some of these questions.

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Share the story of your bad-air day

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.

» How does poor air quality affect you? The Salt Lake Tribune and KUED Channel 7 want to hear your bad-air-day stories — whether written or video-recorded. Send stories to utairquality@sltrib.com with “My Bad Air Day” in the subject line or share them at facebook.com/saltlaketribune.

» Share video stories on Tout at tout.com/sltrib or at #mybadairday on Instagram. The Tribune and KUED will share your stories as part of our ongoing air-quality coverage.

Poor air in America

The American Lung Association estimates that 127 million Americans, or 47 percent of the nation, live with pollution levels that at times are too dangerous to breathe.

Copyright 2014 The Salt Lake Tribune. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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