Mar 11, 2013 8:00 AM

Author: Melinda Rogers

If you think this winter’s inversion season is among the worst in recent years, you’re not alone.

The Salt Lake Valley’s normally picturesque view of snow-capped mountains has been blocked by a dirty haze for significantly more days this winter than in previous years, data shows.

Utah’s Division of Air Quality reports that so far in the winter of 2013, Salt Lake County has experienced 22 days in which pollution levels have exceeded federal air quality standards.

In 2012, there was only one day in which pollution levels rose above those standards. Air pollution in Utah is becoming a growing concern. There are obvious health ramifications cited in studies connecting air pollution to increased death rates, adverse cardiac effects, childhood asthma and other conditions.

And there are other problems connected to the Wasatch Front developing a reputation for bad air including what the economic impact will be: will businesses choose to locate in states other than Utah because of environmental quality issues?

The University of Utah plans to study those issues and others connected to air pollution at the newly created Progam for Air Quality, Health, and Society.

The program will provide an opportunity to catalyze research collaborations across various university departments and disciplines. It kicked off earlier this month at Fort Douglas, where more than 125 people gathered for the inaugural Air Quality Health and Society retreat.

Doctors, engineers, economists, public policy experts, and clean-air activists participated in a diverse discussion on the science behind air pollution as well as the effect of pollution on health and the economy.

The retreat was a starting point for the program to continue its research in coming years by bringing together researchers to examine air pollution.

“We’ll be much stronger as a group collaborating, and I hope come up with more imaginative ways to really change our air quality and improve the circumstance for all of us here,” said Robert Paine, M.D., Chief of Pulmonary and Critical Care Medicine.

With support from the Offices of the Senior Vice President for Health Sciences, the Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs, Vice President for Research, as well as the College of Engineering and the Southwest Consortium for Environmental Research and Policy, the program seeks to use Utah’s unique environmental situation to become a national leader in understanding the consequences of air pollution, said Paine, who has played an integral role in the Center’s development and will serve as its director, along with Kerry Kelly, PE, a chemical engineer, who will be the Center’s associate director.

There is a strong need for good, objective data to help with decision making as the discussion over air quality in Utah continues, said Kelly. Many advocacy groups exist, but the University is perfectly situated to offer a wealth of scientific data to the debate, she said.

Kelly said the program’s goal is to be a recognized, credible resource for universities, business and industry, education, public health and public policy.

It will provide scientific, unbiased data that goes beyond the simple notion that “air pollution is bad for you,” she said. The program wants to gain a better mechanistic understanding of air pollution by studying particulate matter on several levels, including size, composition, spatial distribution as well as the broader health effects of air pollution.

At this month’s retreat, Vivian S. Lee, MD, PhD, MBA, Senior Vice President for Health Sciences at the University of Utah, Dean of the University’s School of Medicine, and CEO of University of Utah Health Care, emphasized the importance of studying air pollution for the welfare of the state’s health and economy.

“We really have the expertise here at the University of Utah to contribute something significantly to our understanding of air quality and how we can improve it here,” Lee said.

She cited statistics from the March 2013 edition of Harper’s Index. The magazine noted that in 2010, the estimated number of people who died because of high cholesterol was 2 million. The estimated number who died because of air pollution that year, however, was believed to be about 3.2 million.

“Something is very wrong with this picture,” Lee said. “This is not [only] a political issue. This is a public health and economic one. If our children can’t go outside, if their ability to learn is inhibited by bad air, it affects all of us. If employees get sick and miss work, productivity goes down. And of course when air quality affects health, we’re all worse off.”

“The Wasatch Front is ready to make some changes,” Lee said. “And now it is time for us to do our part."

Other articles on Utah's air quality:

New York Times - Seen as Nature Lovers' Paradise, Utah Struggles with Air Quality 

KUER - U Tackles Air Pollution with Collaborative Approach 

The Salt Lake Tribune - Utah's Air-Pollution Experts put Their Heads Together

Melinda Rogers

Melinda Rogers is a Communications Specialist at the University of Utah Health Science Public Affairs Office


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