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Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
Sally Wetzel, a third-grader at Altara Elementary School in Sandy, plays with a giant bowling set during indoor recess on Friday, Dec. 15, 2017. The Salt Lake County Health Department has announced a new program to assist local schools in keeping students physically active — even when air quality guidelines keep kids indoors for recess

SANDY — The Salt Lake County Health Department is lending a helping hand to schools by providing equipment for several games children can play while having indoor recess — something educators say will be especially helpful during days with bad air quality.

Inside the gym at Altara Elementary School in Sandy, the equipment — from giant inflatable bowling sets to spikeball nets — was lined up for the first time Friday, with enthusiastic reception from the students who got the first crack at it.

"The kids love it," said Nicole Svee-Magann, the principal at Altara Elementary. "What I'm hoping is (they will use it) during the inversion season."

The gear can also be used for indoor recess when the weather is too cold or for other occasions. But it will be especially helpful when the air is unhealthy because that happens so frequently, according to Svee-Magann.

"This week's been horrible because we've had some red days. On red days, no one goes out," she said. "During the wintertime, there's usually one or two weeks a year we don't go out."

With the gunky air, she added, "the last two days have been hard."

County health officials are launching their new equipment rental program the same week that the first big inversion of the season settled, prompting a call from Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment to keep students inside during recess.

"We ask schools to keep children indoors," said Denni Cawley, executive director of the advocacy group.

Cawley said she would like to see even "stricter standards" for keeping children inside, "given what we know of how levels of pollution below (Environmental Protection Agency) standards can ... damage our bodies' systems," and "research that shows air pollution's negative impact on the developing brain of children."

Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment also advised that air control in cars be set to recirculate rather than bringing in outside air, that furnace floor registers be vacuumed, and that home air filters be kept running 24/7.

Utahns should take health precautions by "absolutely" not exercising outdoors and to "stay indoors as much as possible" during inversions, the group also warned.

"The air pollution levels that we're currently experiencing have been shown to be a significant threat to overall health," said Dr. Brian Moench, an anesthesiologist and founder and board president of Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment. "It's very hard to overstate what a significant problem this is. And when the levels are as high as they are, then all of our concerns are obviously magnified."

Exercising outdoors during times of high air pollution has been shown to carry several significant health risks, according to the Mayo Clinic.

"I think people are finally getting that message," Moench said. "Especially don't (exercise) near heavily trafficked roads. It's far worse near areas of traffic congestion."

Moench said he takes issue with the state's current air quality system that warns only certain vulnerable groups of people to take health precautions during high pollution, saying it doesn't do justice to the risks faced by everybody during an inversion.

"They're unhealthy for everybody, so when the government warnings come out as unhealthy for sensitive groups, that tends to downplay the whole issue. ... Everybody's in that sensitive group," he said. "So we would like to see a warning system that's actually updated to match the medical literature, and it hasn't been at least in the last 10 years or so."

Utah Department of Environmental Quality spokeswoman Donna Kemp Spangler responded that "I think it's a good guide. Is it perfect? I don't know — I'm sure it's not."

"It is based on the national EPA health standards, and the health standards are based on studies that determine what is a safe health level," Spangler said. "People react differently to air pollution. It really does depend on what their current health level is.

"Children, the elderly, people who have asthma, people who have respiratory problems ... they are sensitive. But if you're a healthy person, you may be able to go outside beyond even what the federal health standard is."

The department's alert levels consist of green for good air, yellow for moderate pollution levels, orange for "unhealthy for sensitive groups," red for unhealthy, purple for very unhealthy and maroon for hazardous.

Under the red designation — the highest the state has gotten, Spangler says — people with lung conditions such as asthma, children, the elderly, and people active outdoors are told they should "reduce prolonged or heavy outdoor exertion."

Spangler said she believes the advisory standards are useful in helping "educators (make decisions) to keep kids inside when they know the particulate level is going to be unhealthy for those people."

The Utah Department of Health provides school districts additional guidance, she said.

At the Salt Lake County level, officials hope the new equipment offered on a rental basis to schools can make the most of a bad situation when pollution keeps students inside.

"Hopefully on those red air days, they can still be active. Hopefully they don't have to be sitting down," said Emmalee Boyland, a health educator for the county. "It's not their fault it's a red air day."

The school equipment, which also includes scoop-ball sets, a mini golf course and Wii consoles paired with physical activity games, was paid for using a grant awarded to the county for initiatives that fight childhood obesity, said Salt Lake County Health spokesman Nicholas Rupp. The county will also pay for staff time in delivering and setting up the equipment, Rupp explained.

Principals and teachers across the county can rent equipment for up to four weeks at a time with no cost to the school itself, Boyland said. They can even apply to use some items permanently, she added.

The new program is a godsend for cash-strapped schools, Svee-Magann said.

"There's a limited amount of equipment we can buy for our students each year, just 'cause our budget's so tight," she said.

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Students typically suffer from a lack of concentration when their physical activity is limited from having to stay in for recess, according to Svee-Magann.

"They just get more lethargic," she said. "They're less likely to get excited about schoolwork."

Svee-Magann is also excited for how the new gear can help teachers, who she said also "get antsy" when outdoor recess is canceled because of its impact on their preparation and break times.

"It makes it a longer day for teachers as well," she said.