Toxic Fog Settles Over Salt Lake City

BY ON January 25, 2013

Salt Lake City skyline

This Associated Press piece originally appeared on CBS News:

A group of Utah doctors is declaring a health emergency over the Salt Lake City area’s lingering air pollution problem.

Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment planned to deliver a petition Wednesday demanding immediate action by elected officials.

The group wants Gov. Gary Herbert and mayors of northern Utah cities to cut the pollution.

The problem hits home for Michelle Francis, who keeps one eye on Utah’s air quality index and the other on her 9-year-old daughter’s chronic asthma these days. The air pollution is so awful in her Salt Lake City suburb that Francis keeps her daughter indoors on many days to prevent her cough from being aggravated.

“When you add all the gunk in the air, it’s too much,” Francis said.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has singled out the greater Salt Lake region as having the nation’s worst air for much of January, when an icy fog smothers mountain valleys for days or weeks at a time and traps lung-busting soot.

That’s what led more than 100 Utah doctors to petition state officials on Wednesday. They suggest lowering highway speed limits, making mass transit free for the winter and curbing industrial activities. They also call for a permanent ban on wood-burning, and want large employees to let people work from home.

Doctors say the microscopic soot – a shower of combustion particles from tailpipe and other emissions – can tax the lungs of even healthy people.

“We’re in a public-health emergency for much of the winter,” said Dr. Brian Moench, a 62-year-old anesthesiologist and president of Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment, which delivered the petition demanding action at the Utah Capitol.

The greater Salt Lake region had up to 130 micrograms of soot per cubic meter on Wednesday, or more than three times the federal clean-air limit, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

That’s equivalent to a bad day in the Los Angeles area.

For 2 million Utah residents, there is no escape except to the snow-capped mountains that gleam in the sunshine thousands of feet higher, or to resort towns like Park City, where the Sundance Film Festival is under way.

“I wish there was something we could do about it,” Francis, a school teacher 10 miles north of Salt Lake City, said.

Authorities have prohibited wood burning and urged people to limit driving. Vehicle emissions account for more than half of the trapped pollutants.

Utah regulators are working on a set of plans to limit everyday emissions, including a measure to ban the sale of aerosol deodorants and hair spray that contain hydrocarbon propellants. Those plans, however, will take years to show results.

Doctors say people — especially pregnant women and children — should stay indoors, or at least avoid active outdoor exercise under the sickening yellowish haze. Elderly people with heart disease are most at risk, Moench said.

“If you can see it, you don’t want to breathe it. Think about what’s going into your body,” Salt Lake City pediatrician Ellie Brownstein said. “It’s essentially like smoking. Instead of breathing clean air, you’re breathing particles that make it harder for your lungs to function and get oxygen.”

Snow cover amplifies the phenomena called a temperature inversion – Salt Lake City was a foggy freezer box Wednesday at 18 degrees, while Park City basked in sunny 43-degree weather. The warmer air aloft acted like a lid on the frigid valley air, leaving it with no place to go.

For weeks, industrialized cities in northern China have been dealing with bouts of sickening smog several times more toxic than Utah’s. But by U.S. standards, Utah’s pollution index is off the charts with readings routinely exceeding a scale that tops out at 70 micrograms a cubic meter. The EPA sets a standard for clean air at no more than 35 micrograms.

“People think the health implications are limited to asthma – that’s only a drop in the bucket,” Moench said. “For every pregnant woman breathing this stuff, this is a threat to her fetus through chromosome damage. It sets people up for a lifelong propensity for all sorts of diseases.”


TOPICS: Air Pollution, Asthma, EPA, Pollution, Pregnancy, Soot, Utah

  • Ernest Grolimund

    Salt Lake city engulfed in wood smoke. A minor version of the London Fog Air Pollution Disaster caused by burning coal in fireplaces. National apportionment of air pollution: 35 % from wood smoke annually, therefor 70% wood smoke in winter. B Williams of NBC correctly reported lots of spikes, peaks, variations in pm conc. Pm monitors are designed to pick up the underlying pm layer you can’t miss. But superimposed on that are hotspots. When oil and gas were the main energy source, few hot spots existed. But the EPA Inspector General says the entire pm monitoring system is not working to fullfill the intent of the Clean Air Act because of 30% burning wood causing problems like this all over the country. The problem is just as bad for the individual in every state living next to a wood burner. Houses are being engulfed in wood smoke too, but government ignores the 100 million individuals being smoked out as the state env depts call it.

    40% efficiency for an old stove compared to 80% for an oil furnace. 500 times more pollution per EPA website. If more were burning in a blackout and fireplaces were used, a more deadly disaster would be happening like Londons. The doctors have it right. The Governors and the EPA AQI system have it wrong. It is a health emergency because people are sick. That means the government has to change the whole AQI system to update it like the updates to the pm std. The entire pm monitoring system has to change too as the inspector general told me. But will the OMB do it? That is the rub. They are causing this by a policy to not regulate small sources like they do autos and trucks. That has to change. The NSPS stds have to meet the pm std at least as EDF is calling for, not BACT if does not meet the legal requirement and old equipment must meet the pm std too as it is worse. The constitution Obama talked about in his inaugural adress requires it to protect life, health, safety, and welfare.

  • Ernest Grolimund

    20% wood smoke pm reported is probably wrong. Possible reasons: Budget cut 10 years, census taking off because burners do not want to get smoke police on them, etc. Even if it is at 20%, the hotspots next to burners are even worse than usual and they are unhealthy even in relatively un polluted cities. The pollution anywhere has to be stopped and prevented per Clean Air Act, not just the pollution at the monitors. Also, the pollution s not just from the 6 criteria pollutants considerd seperately. The combined synergistic effect has to be considered but never has been. There are 180 air toxics in the toxic cloud over SLC. The picture of SLC is on a good day and does not show the pollution cloud that was put on NBC nightly news. Both should go on the website for comparison. What we have and what we are working for, blue skies, and cleanliness next to godliness.
    All manner of problems can be seen here. The monitoring system iks not working anymore per EPA OIG. The AQI system is not updated to the latest DHHS and ATSDR science, especially the new safe dose for wood smoke pm2.5 that is approximately 1/4 the safe dose for ambiant mixed pm in environments dominated by oil and gas pm. Obviously, people are sick, but the Governor looking at legal stds says that everything is OK. The lawyers don’t know the truth in that particular city or state. The expert doctors do. Obviously the whole system is not working.
    Time for electric trolleys like Bostons. A fast phaseout to hybrids and electric vehicles is needed or hydrogen cars. Incinerators have to be shut down. And what is with cooking supplying 42% of the pm? Go after that. Stop the smell from gril oriented burger restaurants.
    Can’t believe that Utah is downplaying the wood smoke when they report strong smells of wood smoke in their filters and they report you can smell wood smoke all over. The DHHS says if you can smell smoke of any kind, there is a health problem and health problems have to be stopped and prevented. Get the DHHS involved. Get the Governor out of the way. He’s a political genius, give him his due. But this is a problem for the doctors and engineers, not the politicians.

  • Smoked out Utah Mom

    Write. Lead. Tell us what to do, how to do it. Bring together the doctors group and the Utah Moms for Clean Air and Utah MCAF. Do not waste this opportunity. The BP oil disaster was jumped on to right a wrong. This could be your moment on the clean air problem ! The major news media are on your side ! Hurray B. Williams. Our hero. News man of the MCAF, of the EDF. News man of the year !
    EDF: you have great organizing petition power. Bring it for Utah moms. Then bring it to the Whitehouse. There is somethkng that can be done. The politicians say there is nothing they can do. So vote them out. We need a can do attitude like the doctors have. Put your ideas here. Show the world that the Utah moms care and have something to say. Build your movement. Don’t let this pass with just 2 comments from an out of stater.
    Show the picture of SLC engulfed in smoke, whatever the source, and then contrast it with the DHHS statement that if you see or smell smoke, then there is a health problem. Then rhettorically ask; “Do you see the smoke?” That should obligate the local and state government to stop and prevent the problem, even if it is not technically and legally an emergency per AQI readings.
    Report what the hotspot levels are and quote the CAA language that says pollution anywhere has to be kept below stds and even more than that: threats to life , health, safety, welfare have to be stopped and prevented even if that means changing the monitor system or changing the AQI. That is what it takes sometimes to make government work. It is what lead to the changes in the pm stds from 150 to 75 to 65 to 35 mcg/m3. Follow the lead of Obama who quoted the constitution in his inaugural adress. Make the constitution your rallying cry. Or something else. But lead, as you have proven you do well.

  • Mother of an Asthmatic Child

    That is what my asthmatic daughter said to me. So I rushed her to the hospital. Her meds were not working in the severe pollution. Our doctors plan that worked well in the past, was overpowered. We had to use steroids that made our daughter hyper and have the side effect of slowing growth if used in the long run. We needed a nubulizer or air mister to clean all the mucus out of her lungs along with salt. And even the doctors did not know everything we needed to do. After the allopathic medical doctor, we went to a world class naturopath who said we shoud give her fish oil for the inflammation. Then there was the magnesium needed to relax the muscle spasms in her lungs.
    So now I say to whoever can read this: Help! Do something. This kind of pollution is illegal. It is negligant to allow it. That is a crime with injuries like those happening to the 15% of the op[ulation that is asthmatic, the 15% who are allergic, the 20% who are children, the 20% who are elderly and in danger of heart attacks. 90% of the people have been polled as saying they dislike tobacco smoke in their their living environments. But this is beyond that. It gets into our houses, so the orders to stay indoors do not help a lot. We need air cleaners and the reccomended hepa filters do not work. We need Hyper hepa filters. We can’t go for walks. It is in the streets, our schools, our businesses. Why don’t you just shut down all business and all activity? It deserves that. Berter that than to shut down someones breathing and someones life from an asthma attack or heart attack from an immanent danger. Then there are the long term threats to cancer as this kind of pollution is like second hand smoke on steroids.
    No safe level of tobacco smoke? How about this, Surgeon General, State Physician, DHHS Comm Chair, Nat Resources Chair, State and Local Government Chair. Am Lung Assn Director.
    Remember the TV show with the repeated call: “Car 54 where are you?” Governmant politicians, etc: Where are you? MCAF: Where are you? ALA: Where are you?

  • Certified Smoke Reader

    OMG. Smoke over a property line? How about over everyones? The whole city? Looks like the air pollution over Bejing that is being reported up to 800 mcg/m3 pm2.5, 24 hr ave. The brown cloud photgraphed by satelite over large areas of China. Looks like the carbon black soot cloud monitored over India and China that is melting the Himalayan glaciers and threatening the water supply of India and China. Father forgive them, they know not what they do? Sorry I can’t say that. The gov officials either know or should know. NBC news plastered it all over the country. Reported spikes, peaks, non uniform pollution despite what it looks like from a plane. Advanced mobile monitoring is showing ave pm in some places twice the monitored pm from the fixed monitors up to 300 mcg/m3 in Keene NH. 300 mcg/m3 community wide pm in other cities and the NH pollution is tame compared to this. Reminds me of the London Fog Air Pollution photos in my text book. Looks like the Donora, PA photos where it was reported “Smoke Ran like Water” in the PBS documentary by that name. What does the color indicate? L.A. pollution is yellowish. This is like a reddish brown? Reminds me of the color used to describe the air pollution over China where they described it as a brown cloud. The wood smoke over Masterton, NZ looks greyish white, not like this. They never taught me about color.

    Health problems, global warming, mercury destroying our fish food supply?

    Hell and high water? Jesus saying: Beware the fiery furnace at Ghenna mistranslated into hell in the bible?

    What is it going to take if government won’t do anything for gross air pollution like this?

    Please Governor, call it an emerging health problem, if you will. Or a public health nuisance if you are afraid of saying it is an emergency. It is not your fault it happened but if you don’t do something about it, it will be your fault then. You are surrounded by experts and the experts have all written that this is an environmental problem and a public health problem. That makes it a legal problem and the legislature should call on the Atty Gen to ask if the present laws are working to prevent all of these problems. The threat of sudden deaths makes it a safety problem too and the talk of moving to another state decreases property values and tax revenues. Admin Jackson has said pollution depresses economic growth so it is also an economic problem.

    How about the env problem of the decade, or century landing in Salt Lake City, a city of 2 million people?

    Sorry Governor, voluntary actions will not solve this problem. The tea party philosophy won’t work here. The philosophy of Nixon who started the EPA is needed or the philosophy of Teddy Roosevely is needed who advised us to conserve our natural resources. Now that is true conservatism. If you want to help yourself and your party, you must do something. If you do nothing you leave yourself wide open to a law suit from some env group, or perhaps the EPA or federal AG on some kind of DHHS OIG reccomendation on failing to implement the essential services policy on that same website. I believe there is a health problem, 100 doctors believe it, 700 people signed a petition stating they believed there is a health emergency. Everyone makes mistakes so just change your mind. Say the doctors got to you over the lawyers. Everyone knows you have tough decisions to make. People forgive and forget if you correct your mistakes, but heaven help you if you don’t, because we are talking about fire and smoke here and Jesus says we all reap what we sow.

  • Burning Issues Reader.

    The Burning Issues website shows wood smoke pm in similar cities as about 40% in winter. That is below the national average. The issue of how much wood smoke there is is difficult to estimate but is impoertant because the ATSDR and DHHS have written that wood smoke pm is about 4 times more toxic than mixed ambiant pm and there are 180 toxic gases involved too. In a crisis like SLC is having, more robust monitoring with mobile monitrs is called for and given the smell of wood smoke in the area and the ncreased toxicity, the special monitors that pick up just wood smoke pm shpould be used, perhaps borrowed from the few states that have them or from the EPA. The ATSDR should also be called in to do a health assessment of the entire air pollutioin problem and how to stop and prevent this in the future given the attitude of gov officials in Utah that is self defeating. Ie they state that nothing can be done when something has to be done even if drastic measures are needed.