OGDEN -- Weber County beat the rest of the Wasatch Front on Friday for the dubious honor of having the first "red" day in this year's dirty-air season.
Davis and Salt Lake counties are hot on Weber's tail. They were forecast to go red today, followed by Box Elder County on Sunday.
The entire Wasatch Front will stay red until the weather changes and clears out the dirty air.
The announcement Friday by the Utah Division of Air Quality was greeted with dismay by Dr. Brian Moench, spokesman for the Utah Physicians for Clean Air.
Moench, an anesthesiologist who practices in Salt Lake City hospitals, said the season means another winter of increased disease and death because of dirty air.
He blames Utah's repeated "capitulations to industry that never seem to end," allowing new pollution sources or limiting regulation of existing ones.
When the air will clear is unclear. The National Weather Service predicts calm weather through Wednesday, when there is a "slight chance" of snow.
"The temperatures are warming up, and without a storm to push the inversion out, we're going to get this particulate pollution, and that's what causes the air to be really bad," said Department of Environmental Quality spokeswoman Donna Spangler.
Winter pollution occurs when particulate matter, bits of dirt and other pollution 2.5 microns wide exceed a federal limit, Spangler said. One micron is a thousandth of a millimeter.
Those bits float in the air and are inhaled, lodging in lungs and causing irritation, which can cause inflammation.
The particles are so small, they can react with other chemicals also in the air, producing other irritants.
A "red" burn day means that all outside or in-home burning is prohibited, industries are asked to limit emissions, and automotive travel is discouraged.
People sensitive to dirty air because of lung or heart problems are advised to stay indoors or at least avoid exercising outside.
In the 2010-11 winter, the Salt Lake-Davis area had 11 yellow air days and 16 red air days.
Weber County had 11 yellow air days and 13 red air days.
Utah's winter inversions are caused when clear days allow warm air to rise and cold air settles into the Salt Lake Valley.
That cold air is held in place by the surrounding mountains, just like cold air in a chest freezer that opens from the top instead of the side.
Unless a storm with high winds blows through, that cold air traps car exhaust, coal plant emissions and other pollutants.
Moench said having the first red day of the year is nothing to be proud of.
The irritation to lung tissue caused by dirty air can last up to 30 days after the air clears, he said, causing continued breathing and cardiovascular problems.
The Utah Physicians for Clean Air has been lobbying for legislation to clean Utah's air for several years, and he said the trend is in the wrong direction.
Moench said he's particularly disturbed about "the overall political climate in the nation, this idea among conservatives that the best thing for the economy is to abandon all environmental regulations."
For example, he said, Utah's congressional representatives recently voted for a bill to limit regulation of dust.
Moench calls it "this really atrocious farm dust bill, which is not a bill that addresses farm dust at all, but attempts to eviscerate all EPA dust regulation."
If the bill is passed, he said, it will "really make it difficult to enforce the Clean Air Act. They want to disguise it as a way to eliminate harassment of farmers."
The EPA opposes the bill.
In testimony before Congress, Regina McCarthy, assistant administrator for air and radiation at the EPA, said, "The science continues to show that fine particles cause serious health effects and can lead to premature death, increased hospital admissions and emergency room visits for heart attacks and strokes, and development of chronic respiratory disease.
"Nationally, EPA estimates that exposure to fine particles results in, among other effects, 130,000 to 320,000 excess deaths in adults (5.4 percent of all deaths), 110,000 emergency room visits by children, 200,000 cases of acute bronchitis in children, 2.5 million cases of exacerbation of asthma and 18 million lost work days each year."
Moench said this works out to several thousand deaths in Utah a year because of dirty air.
Moench said his group is going to begin a campaign to get cities and counties to start passing ordinances to require clean air because the state refuses to do so.
Some examples are "reducing freeway speed limits during inversion seasons (and) phasing out all wood and coal burning during the winter," he said.
"Other communities in other states have done things like that, so there's precedent for that."
Moench said communities in south Davis County should get together and "pass an ordinance that the combined emissions of all the oil refineries should not be allowed to increase, so when Tesoro wants to expand their operation, they can only be allowed to do so if they keep their emissions where they are now."
"That won't happen at the state level," he said, "but it can happen at the local level."