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But fine particles and ultra-fine particles, less than 100 nanometers in diameter, are now thought to actually penetrate lung tissue and reach circulating cells and the brain. (A nanometer is one billionth of a meter).
There remains considerable debate about how this happens and what it means.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
But researchers have discovered soot in the brains of dogs and children in polluted Mexico City and documented damage to their prefrontal cortex.
Pollution is now being implicated in neurological disorders, such as Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease and stroke. It may even hamper the development of babies’ brains in utero.
"It needs further study, but I believe the risk to kids’ cognition and development is real," said Jennifer Majersik, a neurologist at the U. and the mother of two boys at Hawthorne.
How applicable to Utah is the existing research — such as the studies based on ozone and traffic-related pollution in California or Mexico? That’s an open question.
Balancing the risks » The shifting, sometimes conflicting, information on pollution can be paralyzing. Saralinda Bell monitors the air quality daily but knows parents who don’t.
"This is all kind of new to us," she said one afternoon last week while checking Soren out of school for a fun timeout from indoor recess.
It’s not often that all students are kept inside during recess. In 2007, a year on par with the record-high pollution spikes in 2013, there were four days when particulates rose above the triggering threshold of 90 micrograms per cubic meter of air, according to the Utah Department of Health. But there are plenty of days that rise above safe levels for "sensitive" kids such as Soren.
Kids, too, are keenly aware of the health threats.
A group at Hawthorne has spent part of the year learning about pollution and its health toll, which is a good thing, said Majersik.
It’s the younger generation that will internalize conservation messages and drive change, she said. "Today it’s shocking to see someone over-watering their lawn or throwing trash from a car. But if you ask my mom, who grew up in the ’50s, she’ll say, ‘Nobody thought about stuff like that back then.’ "
She appreciates air quality alerts so she and her family can take steps to protect their health, but says she tends not to be a worrier.
Hofmann, the pediatrician, advises patients to take heed of alerts but not let them rule their lives.
Her son has asthma and if he is needing to use his rescue inhaler, she may send a note to school asking educators to keep him inside, even on lower-pollution days. But if his asthma is well-controlled, she’ll let him go outside for recess despite the air quality because, she said, "I want him to have a normal childhood. We must balance all sorts of risks every day."
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 email@example.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.
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