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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.

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"We need to pay attention to the details of how pollution hurts human health," he said, "so that we reduce those health effects and protect those who are vulnerable."

Among them: children, because their lungs are still developing and they tend to be more active and spend more time outdoors.

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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‘Pollution hurts our health’ » Utah has been a major contributor to pollution-related health research, largely due to the efforts of Brigham Young University economist Arden Pope and his colleagues.

The first big eye-openers documenting pollution’s impact on health date back to coal-burning days and "killer fogs" in Meuse Valley, Belgium (1930), Donora, Pa., (1948) and London, England (1952).  

As deaths mounted and hospital emergency rooms filled up, these episodes proved pollution at very high levels, even for just a few days, can cause illness and death, said Pope. They motivated early clean-air legislation, which mitigated only the worst pollution.

Enter Pope, who moved from Texas to Utah for a faculty position at BYU in the late 1980s.

"I was teaching an environmental economics class shortly after Geneva Steel had shut down and reopened," he recalled.

The temporary closure of Geneva over a labor dispute made it the perfect test case, allowing Pope to document a dramatic drop in pediatric hospitalizations during that period.

During the next decade Pope, working with others, including researchers at Harvard, conducted a series of studies linking pollution to premature death, hospitalizations for respiratory problems and death from lung cancer and heart disease. He also documented reduced lung function in children.

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Some industrial polluters disputed Pope’s findings, which were used to set today’s stricter national air standards. His research has since been replicated in hundreds of studies by scientists.

"We know pollution hurts our health, that it worsens symptoms of [existing] asthma and coronary artery disease," Paine said. "There’s no question about that. I think the science is very, very clear."

But scientists are still testing the hypothesis that pollution can directly cause heart and lung disease. "Likely the answer is yes," Paine said, "but the data aren’t there yet."

Tracing pollution’s impacts » Some of the most provocative research on that front originated in Southern California in the late 1990s. Researchers there monitored thousands of school-age children in 12 communities, from fourth grade through high school, and showed stunted lung development in those exposed to higher levels of particulate matter, nitrogen dioxide, acid vapor and elemental carbon.

They found days with higher ozone levels resulted in significantly higher school absences. And children who lived within a quarter of a mile of a freeway were 89 percent more likely to develop asthma.

Since then, preliminary studies have tied pollution to all manner of chronic ailments, from cancer and arthritis to depression and suicide. It has been associated with decreased movement in sperm in Salt Lake City, which has implications for couples trying to get pregnant.

Women exposed to high pollution during pregnancy have proved to be at greater risk of delivering a premature or low-weight baby, setting those infants up for health woes and developmental deficits.

A Harvard study showed women in a large national sample exposed to the highest levels of diesel exhaust and mercury were twice as likely to have a child with autism than those in the cleanest parts of the sample. These emerging findings are significant because they suggest pollution assaults the body on more fronts than previously thought.

The gunk in Utah’s wintry air that worries health experts is PM2.5, tiny toxic particles or droplets less than 2.5 microns in diameter. These fine particles are dangerous because they may lodge deep in the lungs, causing them to become irritated and inflamed, said Benjamin Horne, director of cardiovascular genetic epidemiology at Intermountain Medical Center.

It’s also likely that the body recognizes the particles as foreign, outside invaders, triggering an immune response and widespread inflammation, said Horne, who has produced research linking Utah’s pollution spikes to increased hospitalizations for chest pain and heart failure in adults.

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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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