Is Air Quality Affecting Your Health?

By Dr. Saphu Pradhan

Winter and air pollution go hand-in-hand here in Utah. Is it affecting your health? Learn the facts.

air inversion

You may have heard that air pollution is associated with many health problems, including respiratory problems (asthma, allergies, pneumonia, and bronchitis) and cardiovascular disease (arrhythmia, heart attacks). Air pollution is indeed correlated with an increase in emergency room visits and hospitalizations for these conditions, while cleaner air is correlated with a decrease. What you might not know is that ever since we started measuring air pollutants and studying their effects on our health, the evidence has been growing that they affect us in other ways too:

  • Infants who are exposed to air pollution in utero can be born prematurely or underweight and can have birth defects. This leads to a higher risk of brain, respiratory, and digestive problems early in life, and of heart disease and diabetes later on. We don’t know which pollutants cause these problems, but certain common ones that are in cigarette smoke may be responsible.
  • Children who live near freeways and heavy traffic and are chronically exposed to high levels of air pollution, especially particulate pollution and carbon monoxide, are more susceptible to inflammation of the lungs, reduced lung function, chronic cough, and bronchitis. They also have more asthma attacks and worse asthma symptoms.
  • Various cancers, especially lung cancers, are caused by carcinogens in polluted air. Four to eight percent of all deaths can be attributed to air pollution (including about 1,000 premature deaths along the Wasatch Front annually).

What can you do to protect yourself and your family?

  • Reduce emissions. Use public transportation, carpool, and drive slower on freeways to increase vehicle efficiency. If you can, ride a bike or walk. Avoid burning wood.
  • Stay indoors. Air conditioning and heating units filter out many of the particles in the air that you would be breathing outdoors. Exercising indoors (or above the pollution) can protect your lungs from dangerous particles.
  • Minimize your exposure. Avoid high-traffic, industrial areas where air is most polluted. If you have the chance, visit one of Utah’s nearby canyons to enjoy clean air above the inversion.
  • Take medications as directed. If you are affected by poor air quality, ask your health-care provider what to do when your symptoms get worse. Never increase dosages on your own.
  • Pay attention to warnings. Follow the guidelines of local media outlets for improving air quality, especially on “yellow” and “red” days. Talk to your lawmakers about how you can help.

For up-to-date reports on ozone levels and air quality in your county, visit the Utah Department of Environmental Quality website: airquality.utah.gov