Skip to main content
How the Inversion Can Affect Long-Term Health

You are listening to The Scope Radio:

How the Inversion Can Affect Long-Term Health

Feb 11, 2016

Your nose runs and you might cough a few times during the day, even though you don’t have a cold. For otherwise healthy people, those are the immediate effects of a bad air day in Salt Lake City. And when the inversion goes away, so do those symptoms. But the inversion also impacts our health over the long term. Heidi Hanson is a researcher who investigates how polluted air affects people during the course of their lives. As a result, she is familiar with much of the research that has been done documenting the long-term effects of bad air. We ask her what we know about its impacts on long-term health, who the high-risk groups are and how serious the problem really is.

Image credit: MATEOUTAH via CC/FLICKR

Episode Transcript

Interviewer: Getting a better understanding of the long-term effects of poor air quality in Utah. That's next on The Scope.

Announcer: Medical news and research from University Utah physicians and specialists you can use for a happier and healthier life. You're listening to The Scope.

Interviewer: Heidi Hanson is a researcher that studies poor air quality and its adverse health effects. Heidi, when you look outside on one of our inversion type days, knowing what you know, what goes through your mind? Because I'd imagine it's a little different than what goes through my mind because of what you do know.

Heidi: Yeah, so I know that it's not great to be out there and it concerns me for a lot of the populations, especially the long-term effects of it. If a child's being exposed in utero, what are the long-term effects of this bad air quality? I'm thinking a lot further down the road. We also want to think about, obviously, our young children are a sensitive population and then older individuals as well.

Interviewer: Why young children? Is it because they're still developing?

Heidi: Yeah, yeah. So they're sensitive at the time of the exposure, but they're also sensitive for other reasons as well. So they're going through a period of development and so any environmental exposure to them may have long-term adverse effects. Because they're still developing, they're still growing their . . . environmental shock may really affect them in a long term and what we call that is a critical or sensitive period. When a child in utero, or is a fetus, they're going through a lot of rapid development at that time and any sort of environmental shock or exposure can change the way that they're developing.

And what we call that is scarring. Basically what that is, is that's a change to them that cannot be reversed. And for childhood, we usually we call it a sensitive period. So it's not quite as a critical growth period, but it's sensitive to environmental exposures, a lot more sensitive than an adolescent or an adult.

Women are another population that may be affected more than men by the poor air quality. And so that's something that's very interesting to look at the sex differences and really understanding if women are, what are those mechanisms? Then, another population that I've been working on with Dr. Anne Kirchhoff and Dr. Judy Ou at the Huntsman Cancer Institute is looking at cancer survivors. So trying to think through how cancer survivors are affected by bad air quality as well.

Interviewer: I guess I'm fairly fortunate the fact that I'm a male and I'm an adult and I don't have respiratory issues so, quite honestly, a lot of times I go out and I can smell the air, and I can see the air and I don't like the air, but I don't know that it affects me, really. Is that accurate or is it, "Oh, yes, it affects you, Scott"? What's your answer to that?

Heidi: I think it probably affects you a little bit more than you realize. So yeah, you may not have an asthma event or an asthma attack, but it's really . . . I don't know if you've noticed your nose running a little bit more or your body reacting because there are foreign materials going into your body that it's not expecting to deal wit. And your body does have to deal with them in some form. Even though you're not having an event that's taking you to the hospital, it's still affecting your health in some way.

Interviewer: Yeah, that would make sense. You look out and you look at that air and you go, "That can't be healthy," and the research shows that that's indeed the case?

Heidi: Absolutely. There is so much research on this topic and I really think it's pretty hard to refute that there are adverse health effects that are associated with air quality just because of the volume of research that's pointing to this. Not only is it just epidemiological research, but we're looking at animal models and you're seeing the same kinds of things. We're seeing there are definite effects to their quality. Even things you wouldn't necessarily think of, like your fertility. We're seeing there are studies out there showing that bad air quality may affect semen quality in men or bad air quality may affect fecundity for women. It's not just like your normal things, asthma, cardiovascular disease, but it may be affecting a lot more than just that.

Interviewer: And other stuff that we don't even realize.

Heidi: Right.

Interviewer: I know when you're doing research, when you're dealing with anything environmental, it can be very difficult because there are a lot of things in the environment. When you're looking at the effects of air pollution on the populations you're looking at, how do you know that it's air pollution that's causing it? How do you figure all that out?

Heidi: Yeah, so that's extremely difficult. A lot of what we are doing is with some of the methods we can do so you're comparing an individual to theirself in the statistical methods that we're using. And so what that does is that pretty much makes it so that anything we're not able to observe is kind of taken out of the equation. Basically, we're looking at the only things that are changing for that person on that day is their exposure to the air quality.

Air pollution is this amazing thing in Utah so we have this natural laboratory for doing this type of work where we have very clean air days and we have terrible air days. It leads to a kind of a perfect set up for this kind of research where there are strong environmental exposures that are well documented to have. There are biological mechanisms that are plausible that make us think this really may go on to have later life effects.

Interviewer: How do we get to a point where more people care? How do we get to a point where somebody . . . do you feel that we get to a point where somebody like me goes outside and I go, "This is terrible. We've got to do some about this," and then goes on with their day to day? Versus the people that are passionate about it are trying to make change. How we get more people like that?

Heidi: I think people really need to understand that this not just an acute effect. It's not something I'm only dealing with today and then tomorrow it's gone and it's okay. But if people really start to realize that what they're being exposed to may affect them now. It has potential to affect them long-term, especially when they start to get older. But not only that, it really has the potential to affect multiple generations.

If people are concerned about the health of their children and their grandchildren, they should be concerned about the air quality right now. There are studies that are just starting to come out showing there may be epigenetic changes related to air pollution. Basically, what they're saying is that air pollution may affect you, but it also may affect your sperm, which may go on to affect your children, or your grandchildren, or that exposure in utero may lead to epigenetic changes that go on to affect that child and also that child's child.

This is all newer research and so that has to be considered when you're thinking about this. But there is potential that this goes on to affect generations and it's not just that the only person that's affected it's you on the day of bad air quality.

Announcer: is University of Utah Health Sciences Radio. If you like what you've heard, be sure to get our latest content by following us on Facebook. Just click on the Facebook icon at