Skip to main content
Utah's Poor Air Quality

You are listening to Health Library:

Utah's Poor Air Quality

Aug 19, 2013

As winter arrives, the annual battle against poor air quality begins. Troy Madsen, MD, talks about a recent spike in patients visiting the ER related to worsening air quality.

Episode Transcript

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

Interviewer: It's time for another From the Front Lines with Dr. Troy Madsen, emergency physician at the University of Utah Medical Center. As an emergency room physician you see things first-trends, what is happening right now? What is it we need to be aware of?

Dr. Madsen: So right now the big thing we're seeing and the big thing people are talking about is air quality. As the temperatures go up in Utah we get ozone that develops. This is stuff in the air that can then get in your lungs; if you have lung problems like asthma or emphysema, it can really make things worse.

Interviewer: So in the E.R. you're seeing increased cases of this?

Dr. Madsen: We are. We're seeing more cases of people coming in who are having trouble breathing, definitely just in the last few days.

Interviewer: And that's attributed to air quality? No doubt about it.

Dr. Madsen: It is. I hadn't seen the numbers we've had recently until just now and just looking at the ozone levels and the fine particulate matter, this is all the stuff that's released from forest fires and different range fires. We are seeing our numbers up, associated with that.

Interviewer: So what's going on exactly, you've got the bad air, somebody breathes it in, and what's going on at a physiological level?

Dr. Madsen: Yeah, so the big thing that's going on, for people who have asthma or emphysema, there lungs are already sensitive, so when you get this stuff in your lungs, if you get this ozone in there or these particles in the air, it just causes the lungs to get inflamed. They produce more mucous, they just get really inflamed and red, if you were to look at them and see them, and then they get really tight. So these are people who already are more likely to have their lungs just tighten up, where their airways just can't get air through them. This just makes things that much worse.

Interviewer: So what can you do for a person like that?

Dr. Madsen: So the big thing is if you already know you have asthma or emphysema, make sure your medications are refilled, make sure your inhalers are full, and make sure you're using them. Do you have preventive medications? Be sure to use those on a daily basis. If you start to have trouble breathing, use your Albuterol or whatever you're using to help you out. And if things get really bad, come to the E.R. A lot of these people we're having to keep overnight on breathing treatments and on steroids to try and get their lungs opened up.

Interviewer: What about healthy people, is it going to affect somebody that's healthy as well?

Dr. Madsen: So the big thing we're seeing with healthy people is a lot of times they're getting what feels to them kind of like allergies or a cold, clearing their throat a lot, having a lot of congestion maybe runny nose, stuff that feels kind of like allergies, maybe their eyes are watering a little bit, so it's causing some of these issues with them as well. So I would say if you're younger, if you're healthy, get outside, exercise, enjoy it but try and do it more in the morning when it's not quite so hot, because as the day gets hotter, that ozone, that stuff in the atmosphere builds up more and can be more of a problem.

Interviewer: How long are we going to have to endure?

Dr. Madsen: Hard to say, yeah, in terms of what we have in line and in store for us, I think it's really going to depend on what happens with fires. I sure hope that we don't see forest fires and issues like we had last summer. I can say I've never seen a summer in the E.R. like last summer, in terms of the number of cases we had of people with trouble breathing. It was worse than what we see in the winter, which is usually pretty bad, so let's just hope it doesn't get to that point.

Interviewer: So it's really the fire particulate matter more than the heat and the ozone that's causing the problems?

Dr. Madsen: Well I think what happens, the ozone is there, it's always there with the heat, we know about it, people who have asthma kind of know what to watch out for but then you throw that smoke in on top of it, for the bad forest fires, and that's when things really get bad. People usually aren't prepared for that and that's when we start to see a lot of problems. It kind of pushes people over the edge who already have some issues.

Announcer: We're your daily dose of science, conversation and medicine. This is The Scope, University of Utah Health Sciences Radio.