Anyone can look out the window at all the smog we suck into our lungs during an inversion and conclude it’s not doing our health any favors.
But just how bad is it? And are the itchy eyes and sore throat symptoms of a cold or particulate pollution (or both)? Should you risk going out for a run, or just stay inside?
We’ve assembled some of the most commonly asked questions about health impacts from Wasatch Front inversions and gathered the answers.
Q: What effects do smoggy days have on pregnant women?
A: The short answer — nothing good. The problem with inversion pollution is that it traps fine particulates called PM 2.5 — basically specks of dirt or dust — that are so small they enter the lungs and can move through them to the blood. For pregnant women, they can also get through the placenta and harm unborn babies.
“At any one day during the year, there are about 40,000 women who are pregnant in Utah,” said Brian Moench, an anesthesiologist and founder of Utah Physicians for a Health Environment. “Unfortunately, most of those women will have to spend part of that pregnancy breathing air we know is toxic.”
Clinical studies have shown bad air causes a range of adverse health impacts to fetuses, including premature birth, low birth weight, birth defects, miscarriages and still births.
“It’s a disturbing thought that the fetus is being infiltrated by these tiny particles,” Moench said. “Every organ being formed can be harmed by that, including the fetal brain. A lot of these particles can end up in the fetal brain, and that can lead to problems for normal brain development.”
Even short exposures to bad air quality can impact rapidly growing babies their entire lives.
“If the brain doesn’t develop properly, there’s not an option to correct that later on,” Moench said. “There can be lifelong consequences.”
Q: What does unhealthy air do to children?
Children are more vulnerable to air pollution than adults because they have a higher metabolic rate — they breath faster and their hearts beat more rapidly. That means on bad air days, children get a bigger does of pollution entering their lungs and circulating in their bodies. And because children’s bodies are still growing — and even teenagers’ lungs are still developing — exposure to particulate pollution can create longterm health problems.
“If you have a child and you’d like them to have the lung capacity to compete at an Olympic level in an endurance sport, they probably will not be able to do that,” Moench said, “due to air pollution we experience on the Wasatch Front.”
A 2015 study from the Journal of the American Medical Association Psychiatry showed particulate pollution can have detrimental impacts to brain development in kids, too.
Q: What does unhealthy air do to the elderly?
Along with children, pregnant mothers and people with asthma or other breathing problems, the elderly are considered part of “sensitive groups” that are more vulnerable to air pollution. That’s because they’re already more prone to heart and lung disease. Aging narrows blood vessels, so when the body’s inflammatory response to particulate pollution causes those vessels constrict even further, it increases the risk of heart attacks and strokes.
Dustin Hammers, a clinical neuropsychologist and assistant professor at the University of Utah, has a study underway exploring the impacts of short-term air pollution on brain function in the elderly. Preliminary research has shown problems with attention and problem-solving skills.
Q: How long does it take for inversion pollution to cause health problems?
The onset of health impacts can be sudden. According to Moench, emergency rooms see higher rates of heart attacks in as little as three hours after an inversion pollution event begins. The rate of strokes goes up after 10 to 15 hours.
“We can actually measure increases in the average person’s blood pressure in about 30 minutes after they’re exposed to air pollution,” Moench said. “So that’s one of the reasons why it follows or makes plausible biologic sense you get heart attacks and strokes.”
Rates don’t go back down to normal until weeks after an episode has cleared up, he said.
In January 2014, researchers with Utah Department of Health conducted a study over 15 days that had air quality that was rated unhealthy for sensitive groups or worse. They found the number of emergency room visits for breathing problems during those 15 days was significantly higher than the rest of the year.
Q: What symptoms might adults who are in relatively good health experience on an unhealthy air day?
The most serious consequences often occur without symptoms being present or without people being aware of them, Moench said. Those consequences include decreased cardiovascular fitness, altered lung function and impaired immunity.
“So there will be increased rates of colds, pneumonia and sinusitis precipitated by air pollution,” Moench said.
Often people will experience itchy eyes, sore throats, headaches and even nose bleeds as part of the body’s inflammatory response to particulate pollution.
Q: What can people do to alleviate the symptoms?
When particulate pollution kicks up the body’s inflammatory response, Moench said, it releases a lot of free radicals that can be damaging. It follows that people can offset some of these impacts by increasing their intake of antibiotics.
“There’s not an awful lot data that vitamins, pills and supplements you buy at health stores do an awful lot,” Moench said. “But there is at least a modest amount of research that suggests fresh vegetables and fruits, especially with dark colors ... are likely to be able to minimize somewhat the damage those free radical chemicals are doing.”
More than anything, though, Moench said it’s important to reduce exposure to the pollution. That takes a strong air filter.
Q: How much does staying inside protect me during an inversion?
Unfortunately, not much. It only takes around two hours for the air inside most homes to reach an equilibrium with outside air, Moench said. It takes a good air filtration system to clean indoor air. In the car, it helps to recirculate air instead of pulling it from outside when running the vent system, too.
“That’s worth doing, especially for people driving on roads with heavy traffic or when they’re stuck on the freeway,” Moench said.
It’s also important to reduce any particulate pollution created at home. That means no smoking, candles or wood burning, according the Utah Department of Health.
Q: Do face masks help?
The average mask sold at home improvement stores for a few dollars won’t make a difference. An air filtration mask has to fit your face snuggly to be effective, and they tend to be expensive. They also create a catch-22 if you plan on wearing one on your bike commute.
“If you’re trying to exercise, it can be pretty hard to breathe through them,” Moench said. “So unfortunately, the more effective they are the harder they are to breath through.”
He suggests looking for dust respirators that have a protection level of at least “N95” — they filter out 95 percent of small particles.