Smog leaves Utah coughing, sneezing and wheezing

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SALT LAKE CITY — A thick layer of smog stubbornly lingering over parts of Utah has fouled the state’s air so badly this week that health officials warned people not to exercise outside and some schools kept children inside for recess and sports.

The haze that has obscured Utah’s picture-perfect mountain views for the last several days is blamed on a weather phenomenon called an inversion that pins pollution to the valley floors and doesn’t relent until a major storm blows through.

The smog spell has made Utah’s air the dirtiest in the country for almost a week, and nearly 8 of 10 Utah residents are living under health advisories. Residents are being urged to drive less and prohibited from burning wood, and sometimes even the most fit have been urged not to exercise outside.

“It’s a disgrace that we’ve got this,” said Richard Middleton, 72, a retired consultant who was out walking in Salt Lake City on Thursday to rehab his knee after surgery.

Carol Werner said it still doesn’t take long for the telltale signs to hit when she steps outside: sneezing, congestion, tightening throat.

“If I go out for a walk for an hour, I’m sorry I did,” said Werner, a professor at the University of Utah.

Her friend, 72-year-old Donna Gelfand, has canceled her regular walks, at least until things clear up. She has lived in Utah for 48 years and said this winter “is one of the very worst.”

The haze lingering around the base of the Wasatch Mountains is a potent cocktail of tailpipe exhaust, industrial pollution and emissions from homes and businesses. The geography of the region makes matters worse: Much of Utah’s population resides in bowl-shaped valleys that cause the smog to get trapped overhead.

The state issues daily health advisories on the region’s air quality between Nov. 1 and March 1. Already this season, 19 “red alerts” — the most severe ranking — have been issued for Salt Lake County, more than the previous two years combined and the third-most in the last decade, according to state records.

The state has made strides in cleaning up its act when it comes to pollution, including cracking down on large-scale polluters, limiting vehicle emissions and making a huge investment in light rail and other mass transit.

Cheryl Heying, director of the Utah Division of Air Quality, said the state’s air is actually cleaner than it was just five years ago and nothing like the lung-clogging conditions from pollution heydays in the early 1990s.

What’s changed in recent years, she said, is that the Environmental Protection Agency tightened its standards, including for tiny particulates called PM2.5 that is linked to premature death in people with heart and lung disease. The pollutant is also particularly tough on people who already have pre-existing respiratory problems such as asthma.

The tighter standards mean more frequent exceedances, and more health advisory notices to the public, Heying said.

But many believe that the smog is worse than most years.

Duane Harris with Intermountain Allergy and Asthma Clinic in Draper said this year “seems particularly bad” and patients are reporting unusual winter symptoms including burning eyes and irritated noses

“I’ve definitely seen an increase the last week or so” in terms of the number of patients and their complaints, Harris said.

Visitors coming to Utah this weekend to ski on its famous slopes will have to slog through the smog in the valleys but will find blue skies and clear air at higher elevations.

“It’s just a completely different environment up there,” said Jessica Kunzer, spokeswoman for Ski Utah.

Those who don’t flee the valleys will have to make do — pollution is expected to linger at least through Saturday. The air quality slightly improved Friday.

Thirty-year-old Lisa Loomis of Salt Lake City was one of just a few people in popular Sugar House Park on Thursday as she walked her 4-month-old dog Zoey, a blur of puppy energy that requires exercise every day, no matter the gunk overhead.

“I wouldn’t be out here if it wasn’t for her,” she said.


Utah Department of Environmental Quality, Division of Air Quality: