I’ve spent the last 12 years trying to spread the word that air pollution is a serious public health hazard. I’m used to giving lectures and writing book chapters and essays about air pollution using research, statistics, graphs, pictures, and stories from patients and colleagues. But I never expected that someday I would become a pollution statistic myself or a point on those disturbing graphs.
I have just been released from what felt like a century in a medieval prison — 60 torturous hours immobilized in an ICU, attached to dozens of tubes, wires, drips, monitors, scanners and alarms, for a rare condition that threatens life and limb without knowing what the outcome would be. My arms are a battlefield of bruises from seemingly endless needles sticks. Now I am grateful just to walk again.
The doctors, nurses and hospital staff were wonderful — gracious, skilled and compassionate — but limited in what they could do on my behalf. The disorder I had, although rare, is strongly connected to co-morbidities like diabetes, fatty diet, inactivity and smoking, none of which applied to me.
You’ve heard about people who are “sleep walkers.” I began to wonder if for the last 50 years I had been a “sleep smoker.” Given that my wife has never found any cigarette butts by the bed, I’d guess probably not.
But I have been doing something else for more than 50 years, which, it turns out, is my only risk factor — breathing Wasatch Front air pollution.
One of my doctors said, “I don’t think you’re at risk of losing your leg,” which I interpreted as black humor, but then he added, “yet.”
I realized it wasn’t entirely a joke because indeed the blood supply to my leg was in serious jeopardy. I have grown fond of my right leg over the years and was warm to the idea of keeping it, so I told him pull out all the stops.
The health consequences from air pollution and those of smoking have the same common denominator — inflammation of the arterial system that has the potential to impair the blood flow to, and therefore the function of, virtually any and all organs. It’s the reason why air pollution can be fatal, contributing to four of the five leading causes of death, and why between 1,000 and 2,000 people every year on the Wasatch Front die prematurely because of our air pollution. Nonetheless, what happened to my arteries is rare even for a heavy smoker.
Recent microbiologic research has confirmed that pollution nanoparticles, once inhaled, can end up embedded in our most critical organs, literally billions of nanoparticles per gram of heart tissue, and millions per gram of brain tissue. Other studies have shown pollution particles lodge in the lining of blood vessels, with preferential accumulation in the diseased, atherosclerotic plaques of critical arteries, the worst place possible, obstructing blood flow even more. This important research, almost word for word, describes what landed me in the ICU.
Gov. Gary Herbert and the Legislature have made some tepid overtures to clean up our air but, year in and year out, they just nibble at the edges. And looming in the future will be the biggest pollution mistake in our history, a dirty energy inland port, which they seem determined to force-feed us.
Going forward I have a choice of what doctors I will see, what procedures I will subject myself to and what medicine I will now take to try and protect my arteries. Perhaps a bigger choice I must make is whether I can still live on the Wasatch Front, given that our air pollution will continue to put me at risk, acutely and chronically, for more episodes of what I just experienced or worse.
I now join many others in facing a tough decision to leave the beauty and heritage of the Wasatch Front. Most of my family and lifetime friends are still here and for me this will always be home.
But when I look at the scan of my arteries, anticipating the next winter inversion haunts me like never before. Deciding whether to stay on the Wasatch Front shouldn’t mean having to choose between social life, family life and life itself.
Brian Moench, M.D., is president of Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment. He is the author of the new non-fiction book, “Death by Corporation: Killing Mankind in the Age of Monster Corporations,” and of the health chapter in the soon to be published book, “Air Pollution in Utah: Issues and Solutions.”