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Valley’s bad air ‘induces cancer pathway’, links to heart, lung disease

By Tavin Stucki

LOGAN — The ongoing discussion of Cache Valley’s inversion-enhanced air pollution problem and its affect on public health is nothing new to Logan natives. Utah State University professor Roger Coulombe addressed the issue at a “Science Unwrapped” public lecture Friday. Many Cache Valley residents wonder how much of an impact they can actually make.

“Is it really something we can fix, or are we screwed?” asked Storee Powell, one of about 200 people who attended the lecture. Variations of the question have been asked many times to Coulombe, a professor of toxicology and director of the interdepartmental graduate toxicology program at Utah State University.

But the question Coulombe spent nearly an hour answering Friday was how the historically awful pollution affects human health. Coulombe said particulate matter 2.5 (PM 2.5) is a problem in large metropolitan areas that use fossil fuels.  PM 2.5 — what Coulombe called “teeny-weeny particles” in the air — are particles 2.5 micrometers or less in diameter.

A slide from Roger Coulombe’s talk, showing how ordinary gases combine to make the toxic brew.

“Particulate pollution goes all through the body,” Coulombe said. “It’s small enough that it can get into the blood. When you see 75 micrograms” — a reference to Cache Valley air readings of PM 2.5 concentration — “it’s like living with a smoker who knocks back two-and-a-half packs a day.” Vehicle emissions, cattle waste, and Logan’s narrow, deep mountain valley topography and frequent weather inversions concentrate the particulate matter and make it harmful to breath in, he said.

Coulombe deferred to his colleague, professor Randy Martin, who researches the measurement and analysis of atmospheric trace species, when asked what the biggest chemical threat to the air is.

“We’re ammonia rich in the valley,” Martin said. “That means we have to attack the volatile organic compounds and the nitrous oxide. Automobiles are a big player in that, that’s why we’re going after emissions. Even a little bit of reduction we’re going to get a health benefit, but we need to do better than a little bit.”

Coulombe said he is sometimes confronted by long-time residents of Cache Valley who point out that there have always been weather inversions in the area that trap cold air at the valley floor and allow warmer air to rise above. “Yes that’s true,” Coulombe said. “But now we’re putting chemicals in the inversion.” There is a preponderance of evidence that chemicals from vehicle emissions and cattle waste contribute to the toxicity of Cache Valley’s air.

Coulombe has studied the effects of PM 2.5 on human and animal cells and said some of the findings surprised him, such as a direct link to heart and lung disease.

“The PM 2.5 isn’t really killing the cells,” he said. “We’re more interested in some of the slower effects. We found that Cache Valley PM 2.5 induces a cancer pathway.”

There are few new ideas to reduce the harmful chemistry in the air. Coulombe — who said he drives a Prius — suggested taking public transit or walking in favor of using personal automobiles to help cut down on the amount of vehicle emissions put into the atmosphere.

As for how much of an impact USU students and Cache Valley residents can make to help the problem, Coulombe’s answer was simple. “If we can reduce, even if it’s a little bit, that has a big payback,” Coulombe said. “I’m optimistic that in the coming years, our PM 2.5 will be less than it is now.”