Utah physicians declared a public health emergency in the middle of a particularly bad air pollution season this year, pointing to spikes in ER visits, respiratory and cardiovascular episodes, and even deaths. Governor Gary Herbert declined to declare an emergency and says that some activists are exaggerating the problem. In the final story in our series of reports on Clearing the Air, KUER looks at what we know and don’t know about the health effects of Utah’s air pollution.
It was late in January, after weeks of bad air quality, when Utah physicians came to the Capitol to deliver a letter to Governor Gary Herbert. Emergency Physician Dr. Howie Garber read the letter, signed by more than 100 health care professionals, calling on elected officials to take urgent action to address air pollution.
“We know from thousands of medical studies that people are dying in our community right now because of air pollution and its role in triggering strokes, heart attacks, congestive heart failure and infant mortality,” Garber said.
It was a message that resonated with Margie McCloy –who has been having trouble breathing.
“I’m an outdoor athlete. I’m a non-smoker, and went I went to the doctor I was told that my lungs look like the lungs of a heavy smoker,” said McCloy.
McCloy decided to start a petition echoing the demands of Utah Physicians for a Health Environment. In early February, she came with a crowd to deliver her petition signed by more than 7500 people to the Governor.
Salt Lake City resident Kelsey Garner joined the rally on the steps of the Capitol with her 12-week old daughter – recently hospitalized with respiratory syncytial virus or RSV. Garner says the air pollution may be too much for her family to tolerate.
“For us, it’s serious, and it’s something my husband and I have decided, we’ll probably need to get out of the area. It’s not worth living here for our kids,” said Garner.
In Millcreek, Bridget James says she’s stayed in the house with her two boys all winter. On a snowy day in February, her youngest is playing with the air purifier.
“We’ve been locked up this winter, air purifiers on in every room, unless I have to take my son to school, you know really trying to just stay inside. I hope that that’s helped, but you just don’t know,” said James.
James is particularly worried because she is pregnant again. Her oldest son has developmental delays which she believes are related to air pollution. Before he turned two years old, James says he got very physical, stopped communicating or making eye contact. At one point, doctors thought he might be autistic, but after she treated him with a heavy metal detox and other therapies, James says he quickly improved and functions normally now with some speech delay.
“I have my own belief of what had happened,” said James, “I think he is a child that had an overload from heavy metals. It can happen from the moment they’re in utero, the air that we’re breathing, food we’re eating, whatever’s in our environment. I think that it put him over the edge.”
Utah has the highest rates of autism in the country. And on bad days, it has the worst air quality. OB/GYN Sam Ponder of Intermountain Medical Center says there may be a link there, but we have no way of knowing for sure at this point.
“While we’ve had numerous studies that have linked autism with a possible association, a probable association truly at this point with air pollution, unfortunately we don’t have anything that can say officially that this is the cause,” said Ponder.
This season, Ponder says she and her colleagues have had numerous pregnant patients come to them anxious about the effects of air pollution on their babies in utero. It didn’t help that a large international study came out this winter showing that exposure to particulate matter increases the risk of lower birth weights by 10 percent. Ponder says it’s difficult to know whether her individual patients will be affected. To be safe, she recommends pregnant women limit their exposure by staying inside during inversions, use the best furnace filters and air purifiers… but that’s about all she can tell them, short of moving out of the valley.
“It’s very frustrating because they’re looking to you for answers what they can do. Pregnant women are in a particularly rough situation because they would do anything in their power to protect their babies, and unfortunately for the most part, this isn’t something they have control over,” said Ponder.
While the impact of Utah’s air pollution on public health has not been thoroughly studied, we do know some short and long term effects. BYU Economics Professor Arden Pope has been studying the health effects of air pollution since Geneva Steel closed down in the Utah Valley more than 2 decades ago. Pope says high levels of pollution during inversions clearly have immediate short term effects on sensitive groups and those with pre-existing conditions like asthma and cardiovascular disease. That includes death in extreme cases. But there can also be effects on those healthy citizens who are repeatedly exposed over several years.
“What we’ve learned is over a long period time of this type of exposure, we see increased risk of respiratory and cardiovascular disease that can shorten life expectancy in measurable and significant ways,” said Pope.
That’s the bad news, but Pope has good news as well. According to a national study Pope is working on, cities which showed improvements in air quality over time, also showed corresponding improvements in health.
“This research clearly suggests that efforts to improve our air quality have significant impacts on our health. Bottom line is as we clean up our air, we actually can see improvements in health that can be translated to improvements in life expectancy,” said Pope.
How Utah would clean up its air and realize those improvements in public health remains an open question though. The Division of Air Quality is still working on its plan to bring Utah in compliance with federal standards. And so far, there is very little information generated by state organizations on the public health impacts of Utah’s unique pollution problem. The activist group Utah Moms for Clean Air has asked Governor Gary Herbert to create an Air Quality Task Force that would Commission an independent analysis of the problem and its health consequences. Herbert has said he supports more study and is open to the idea of a task force, but has not committed to it.