How Living in Utah Changed My Life

Three years ago, during the winter, I was invited to interview at the Department of Atmospheric Sciences at the University of Utah. I had never lived close to mountains, and was fascinated by the snow-covered, breath-taking landscape and natural spaces, and moved here the following summer. I had raced road bicycles for over a decade, was just coming off a strong season, and with this wonderful terrain surrounding me, I started exploring new routes, climbing canyons, and taking it all in. Little did I know I was also taking in something else with every single breath.

We are all well-aware of our wintertime inversion issues. As humans, we are much more in tune with tangible, visible things—much more than with abstract, invisible threats. When we see the soot, those smog-filled days during the winter, we try to avoid being exposed to it. Some may telecommute, other lucky ones can escape to the mountains. However, many of us are less aware of the summertime ozone danger.

I have asthma. I’ve had it since I was young, but luckily, I’ve had great doctors who have helped me keep it under control. I am fortunate in being able to say that I cannot recall the last time I had a sufficiently severe attack that I had to reach for my rescue inhaler. Knowing about the wintertime issues, I was very careful to avoid exercising during the soot-filled days and generally tried to stay indoors when the air quality was bad. During the summer, unknowingly, I was significantly more reckless. I made sure to get sunblock on and headed out, sometimes during the middle of the day, for long rides of up to 6 and 7 hours.

I thought at first that my coughing had more to do with the dry air, the fact that we are at a higher elevation, or that my fitness had dropped off. I had a couple of good races but something seemed off. Drawing on my background as an atmospheric scientist, public health investigator, and the multiple studies on summertime exposure hazards, I suddenly understood the cause: ozone was to blame.

Once I realized what was going on and how to reduce my risk, I took steps to change my behavior. I made sure to get anything I needed to get done outside before 10 a.m. and spent the rest of the day indoors. I made sure to plan out my day so that public transit became my primary means of transportation. I became involved in groups seeking to educate the public on air quality and health issues, such as Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment.

Education efforts by advocacy groups are reaching more people, but significant knowledge gaps persist, particularly in under-served communities. To help more people address air quality risks in their own lives, I organized two events that we hope to make annual: The Breathe Clean Festival and the Environmental Exposure Fair, taking place in communities on the West Side of Salt Lake County. Salt Lake County’s West Side communities are disproportionately more affected by poor air quality than their East Side counterparts. This is primarily because heavier industry, power plants, large highways, railroads, and the airport are located on the West Side. Compounded with less awareness of the potential health impacts (possibly exacerbated by language barriers), lower health care levels, and higher incidence of poverty, there is much we can do to improve the situation for our West Side neighbors.

Utah’s residents are keenly interested in air quality issues, and I want to make sure everyone understands that it’s not just a visible, wintertime issue, but also a less visible summertime issue. Ozone is a silent killer; its health effects are as dangerous, if not more dangerous, as PM2.5's. While particulates are tangible and visible, ozone is a gas and thus can permeate deeper into lung tissue, causing a similar effect as a sunburn.

Air pollution is a complex problem, but we can address both its sources and our risks. Our challenge is to ensure we are all educated in air quality and associated health conditions, so we can take action to protect ourselves, our neighbors, and our environment.

Dr. Daniel Mendoza is a postdoctoral fellow at the Pulmonary Division in the School of Medicine and the Department of Atmospheric Sciences at the University of Utah. His research interests include quantifying and characterizing urban greenhouse gas and criteria pollutant emissions used in human exposure estimation and metropolitan planning. b. 1978