Drowning in Utah's dirty air: Utah families, top elected officials search for solutions

Published: Saturday, Jan. 25 2014 11:20 p.m. MST

Christine Frandsen monitors breathing while her children Lincoln, Jane and Lucy receive asthma treatments at their home in Provo on Jan. 17, 2014. One of the children had to be hospitalized in December when the inversions were so bad.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

PROVO — When life at home becomes too brutal, when the threat is so severe and she worries her children will endure yet another suffocating attack, Christine Frandsen packs some bags.

She and her four children flee to safety, turning wistfully at what they must leave behind: the comfort of her own home, friends, school, the stability of everyday life.

When they arrive at their new destination, they can all breathe easier. Literally.

The ugly monster that chases them away from their familiar cocoon is the abusive air of the Wasatch Front. It is the air that put Lucy, 6, in the hospital in December and left her lashing out in frustration.

"She hates her asthma, she screamed that at me during the last hospital stay a few weeks ago, when it looked like she might be there for Christmas," Christine Frandsen said.

Utah's dirty air is costing people their health, and in some cases, their lives. It's costing the state millions of dollars, muddying Utah's reputation as a pristine, clean place to raise a family, grow a business.

And it is causing very real political headaches for Utah's top elected officials as they try to figure out cost-effective, reasonable ways to scrub the airshed or ponder a list of harsh and perhaps more expensive measures to eliminate the culprits: the PM2.5, or fine particulate matter, and its sidekicks of nitrogen oxides, volatile organic compounds and sulfur dioxide.

The problem

The Wasatch Front has a very real pollution problem. Seven counties, or portions of them, do not meet federal Clean Air standards for PM2.5, tiny microscopic particles that enter our airways and settle in the lungs.

This PM2.5 is found in direct emissions that are part of the air pollution and formed by precursor gasses generated by transportation, industry, homes, agricultural operations, businesses. In other words, by those living and working in Utah.

And when it comes to exposure to air pollution, the research is in; there have been more than two dozen signficant studies in Utah looking at local impacts and the health risks associated with exposure to fine particulates.

"It increases respiratory admissions to hospitals and emergency rooms, cardiac events, reduces lung function and increases risk of death," said Arden Pope, a Brigham Young University economics professor whose seminal research in the 1980s in Utah County forged the link between health impacts and air pollution exposure.

"It is clearly true that we are understanding the health effects more and more. In the mid-1980s pollution was substantially worse than it is now and there were a lot of people who denied it had any effect. Now, almost everybody understands that the dirty air that we still have contributes to adverse health outcomes."

Especially those with health issues. About 8 percent of males up to age 17 in Utah have asthma, while just over 6 percent of female children do. In 2011, the Utah Department of Health counted nearly 2,000 visits to the emergency room due to asthma and air pollution exposure may have been an aggravating factor.

Local research suggests a correlation between prolonged or chronic exposure to air pollution and an uptick in visits to the emergency room by sensitive populations, which includes Utah's growing elderly population, but additional study is needed to determine the extent that inversions play.

Worse than Beijing?

Mayors and other community leaders say they have Utahns tell them that the poor air quality has chased families and businesses away.

Earlier this year, the Economic Development Task Force identified the Wasatch Front's air pollution problem as one of the state's most pressing challenges.

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