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Utah League of Cities and Towns

Regular doctor visits during Utah’s winter inversion season were becoming routine for avid runner Bridget James after she moved to the Salt Lake Valley. She blames the poor stagnant air for aggravating her upper respiratory tract. But she never anticipated her child would be even more adversely affected by the pollution that so frequently blankets the valley.

When Park James was 2, he began displaying some unusual behavioral signs. “He went through a long period of banging his head on the hard ground. It was very scary. We did everything to try and stop him,” his mother said. Park’s doctor recommended he be tested for autism.

Anesthesiologist Brian Moench, who heads the group Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment, says rates of autism are increased among families of women who, during their pregnancy, are exposed to air pollution. Studies published in the Archives of General Psychiatry found exposure to traffic-related air pollution during pregnancy and during the first year of life resulted in twice the risk of autism.

Moench cites the research from this and other studies to document the adverse effects pollution has on the human body. “These particles can penetrate the cell and start gumming up the works of structures like the nucleus, the mitochondria, just like the engine of your car. If you pour a little bit of sand in your gas tank, over time, that engine isn’t going to work very well. The same is true of the cells of your body,” Moench said.

State air quality experts measure the chemicals and particulates in the air constantly. One of their biggest concerns are the fine particles that are about 1/40th the size of a human hair, classified as PM2.5s.

Moench says these particles can get lodged in the lining of the nose, attach themselves to the nerves and go back into the brain. Our brains, blood streams and lungs are all vulnerable. And the particulates can worsen or cause life-threatening conditions such as lung disease, heart disease, cancer and strokes.

Bridget Park isn’t sure that toxins in the air were causing her son’s troubling behavior, but she and her husband went to great lengths to create a cleaner environment inside their home by filtering the air. They also began a heavy metal detox diet for 30 days. Slowly, she says, the outbursts of frustration subsided and Park began making eye contact and communicating again. And now she works with conviction to create healthier surroundings for her family and for her community.

ULCT is a nonpartisan, inter-local, government cooperative working to strengthen the quality of municipal government and administration. The league serves as a voice for Utah's 245 cities and towns at the county, state and federal levels.