There is no safe level of air pollution, Utah doctors declare during release of annual report at Capitol rally

Scott Sommerdorf | The Salt Lake Tribune Ten year old Gracie Larsen holds up the excerpt from her diary that she read at the Utah Voices for Clean Air rally in the rotunda of the Utah State Capitol, Saturday, February, 3, 2018.

Even low levels of pollution put the state’s youngest residents at risk of sudden infant death syndrome and other maladies, according to an annual research review by concerned Utah doctors.

The doctors, most members of the advocacy group Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment, gathered at the state Capitol on Saturday to release their annual report on nation-wide research investigating the possible health effects of Utah’s air pollution problem. Representatives from the non-profit Torrey House Press joined in the event to celebrate the release of their latest book, Breathing Stories: Utah Voices for Clean Air.

Both groups said they aimed to pressure Utah’s legislative leaders to take a more aggressive stance on air pollution.

“We cannot have half-hearted measures,” said Denni Cawley, Utah Physicians executive director. “We want more leadership and commitment and less compromise.”

The doctors pointed to a still-growing body of research that continues to identify additional health concerns linked to air pollution to bolster their position.

One recent study demonstrated that infants who are exposed to small particulate pollution are 2-3 times more likely to die from sudden infant death syndrome, Matthew Peterson, a reproductive endocrinologist, told members of the public on Saturday. About 20 percent of pre-term births may also be attributed to air pollution, Peterson said.

Utah accumulates particulate pollution in the winter during inversions, when warm air traps cold air and whatever pollution happens to be present beneath it. The state has failed to meet federal standards for small particulate pollution for more than a decade.

Another line of research has demonstrated that these particles, when inhaled, enter the blood stream and move around the body, causing a myriad of health problems, according to Brian Moench, a founding member of Utah Physicians and an anesthesiologist.

Particles have been measured in the human blood stream after just 15 minutes of exposure to air pollution, Moench said, and they have been observed to remain there for as long as three months. So January’s pollution, he said, is still impacting Utahns in April when the air has cleared.

“All air pollution matters,” Moench said. “There is no off season for pollution. It isn’t just an issue with inversions.”

Particles in the blood stream trigger inflammation, Moench said, which in turn increases the likelihood of heart attack and stroke. Their presence is also linked to the development of cancer, especially breast, bladder and lung cancers.

Other studies, Moench said, have found particulates lodged in people’s brains and linked air pollution to autism and Alzheimer’s. Air pollution may also decrease children’s focus and memory retention in school, Moench said.

But it’s not just the very young or the very old who are at risk. Moench pointed to another recent study that found particulate pollution caused elevated blood pressure and increased the production of stress hormones in young adults.

Air pollution may also affect our genes. Courtney Henley, an anesthesiologist at LDS Hospital, highlighted research that suggested air pollution damaged genetic materials in developing infants exposed while they were in the womb. These children were at greater risk of developing heart disease, thyroid disfunction, obesity, diabetes and even osteoporosis later in life, she said.

If the legislature won’t take action to prevent these health effects, Moench said, then perhaps they will deliver a gallon a grapefruit juice every day to each Utah home. Grapefruit contains antioxidants believed to combat the effects of particulates in the body.

Saturday’s event included readings from Breathing Stories: Utah Voices for Clean Air, a collection of essays about residents’ personal experiences with air pollution. Author Lauren Wilder brought some in the audience to tears as she concluded in her reading that “we don’t just live in polluted places, we live in polluted bodies.” Doctors at the event said her essay made astute observations about the influence of pollution on human health.

Gracie Larsen, a fifth-grade student, also read a diary entry in which she said she wished she could be “friends with the air.”

“I feel sad when the air hurts me,” she said, “but we are hurting the air too.”

Other essays that were highlighted included the writings of a Utah physician who lost her father to lung cancer, and of a young doctor who discovered that Utah’s high levels of ozone, an invisible pollutant that generally spikes in the summer, caused his childhood asthma to return.

Volunteers with the book’s publisher, Torrey House Press, distributed copies in the state House of Representatives on Thursday. Copies will be handed out in the state Senate sometime next week.