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Bad winter air seeps back into Cache Valley, causes asthma and illness

December 13th, 2011 Posted in Opinion

By Lindsay Nemelka

LOGAN — Air quality is becoming more of a concern for residents of Cache Valley as Utah could move into its sixth winter season of falling below federal EPA pollution standards.

Ashley Burraston, USU pre-nursing sophomore and bride-to-be, is one of many people who suffer from inversions that settle here in the winter months. “I can feel every time the inversion comes in because my airways tighten up and it makes it harder to breathe,” she says.

With “red air” days come asthma attacks for Ashley, who takes heavy medication with a nebulizer inhaler up to four or five times a week when low air quality is persistent. Her latest attack happened a few days ago as she was coming home from the grocery store; she had a fit of coughing lasting several minutes. It scared Ashley and her fiancé.

“There are times when the inversion has set in and the pollution levels have increased, where it has been the worst air quality in the nation,” says Rebecca Jorgensen, a certified Health Education Specialist from the Utah Asthma Program. Utah has recorded national worst air pollution levels, but never more than a few days at a time.

In 2010, Cache County had a total of two officially “unhealthy days” that affected the health of the general public, and 14 days affecting people with asthma and respiratory problems. All these dates occurred in the winter months, according to the EPA’s AIRNow program.

“We only have to exceed the 35 µg/m3 standard three times each year to fail the standard,” says Steven C. Packham, Ph.D, a toxicologist for the Utah Division of Air Quality.

The EPA raised the bar for the U.S. pollution standard in 2006 from 65 micrograms per meter cubed to 35 (µg/m3). This change, says Packham, was due to rising data correlations between air pollution and health risks. The pollutant in question, PM (particulate matter) 2.5, is a problem because of its microscopic size.

Jorgensen says to picture PM2.5 as a grain of sand; these particles of pollution bunch together and like sand, have sharp edges. When PM2.5 “makes it past all of the other defenses, [it] can make microscopic tears deep in the lungs.” Repair of these tears causes inflammation in the lungs. Packham says that these “smaller particles can go more deeply into the small airways of the lungs and thus have a greater effect on the alveoli and oxygen diffusion areas of the lung.”

Brian Moench, M.D., president and founder of Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment, says, “Virtually every lung disease you can think of, including lung cancer, can either be caused or exacerbated by air pollution.” He says not only can it permanently stunt lung growth in fetuses whose mothers are exposed to high amounts of air pollution, but it is a known cause of lung cancer.

“About 20 percent of people who get lung cancer are not smokers,” Moench said. “The people who live along the Wasatch Front, because of the pollution we breathe, have their rates of lung cancer increased somewhere between 14 percent and 20 percent.”

This pollution doesn’t just affect the lungs, but can cause problems for every organ system. “It is a common misconception within the public that the biggest health outcome of air pollution is on a person’s lungs,” said Moench. However, he says the biggest health impacts are related to the heart and the brain.

The lung’s inflammatory response to tears causes an immediate rise in blood pressure, which increases rates of strokes and heart attacks. This also directly affects the blood vessels that feed the brain, Moench says — and as well as damaging a child’s lungs, can stunt brain development, causing children to perform worse on intelligence tests.

However, Utah’s air quality problems are mostly tied to its unique geography. Cache County Executive Lynn Lemon states that the inversions “are all strictly weather-related.” He says the cause of the air pollution problem occurs when “we get an inversion with the cold air below the warm air; then none of the pollutants that come out of the automobiles can escape into the atmosphere.”

Jorgensen, Packham, and Moench all agree that our mountain-surrounded valleys which create inversions are the primary cause of air pollution in Utah, especially in the winter months. But there are things residents can do to decrease air pollution, especially on “Yellow Air Day” alerts, which strongly encourage motorists to reduce driving as much as possible.

Pollution is primarily aided by auto emissions (38 percent), as is the increase of health hazards, says Moench. He adds that drivers who idle their engines often have a higher concentration of air pollution inside their cabin than outside. In cases like this, chances of a heart attack can triple within a couple hours.

“Diesel school buses in particular have been demonstrated to have in-cabin concentrations of particulate matter three to five times higher than outside community air,” says Moench.

As spokesperson for the physicians group, Moench says that public funds should be diverted from highway production to mass transit.

Lemon says the county has been working on air quality for more than 10 years and it’s still a big concern for him. In response to the EPA’s new standard, Lemon has since implemented a wood-burning stove ordinance, and is hoping for a vehicle inspection and statewide implementation program by 2012 to cut down on older vehicles with high emission levels in Cache Valley.

With her wedding day fast approaching, Ashley Burraston doesn’t want to be worrying about her asthma. “Because of the winter and inversion problems, most of our activities have to be indoors so I can maintain my breathing.” She is concerned about taking such strong medications at a young age, but of course, isn’t able to shut herself inside on red air days. Ashley believes that people can help improve the air quality simply by driving less and learning to use cleaner, natural fuels.

Click to see the current status of Cache Valley’s air.


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