Bridget James came to the Salt Lake Valley in 1998. As an avid runner, respiratory problems during her first winter led to visit after visit to see her doctor. It was the inversion season and poor air quality, she believes, led to her poor health. Yet she never anticipated the polluted air could also harm the health of her little boy. When her child, Park, was two years old he started displaying some unusual behavioral signs.
Bridget explains, "He went through a long period of banging his head on the hard ground. It was very scary. We did everything to try and stop him." Park wasn't reaching the typical milestones that parents expect during a child's life. His attempts to communicate would result in absolute frustration. Park's doctor recommended he be tested for autism.
Recent studies indicate rates of autism are higher among children exposed to high levels of air pollution. The Archives of General Psychiatry published two studies, one from USC and the other from Children's Hospital of Los Angeles, which found that exposure to traffic-related air pollution during pregnancy and during the first year of life resulted in twice the risk of autism.
Studies like this are closely followed by Dr. Brian Moench, an anesthesiologist and member of the Board of Directors of Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment. Moench compares Utah's polluted air to cigarette smoke. "If you look across the valley on a day when there's notable pollution, if you think of that, as the community is being exposed to second-hand cigarette smoke, that's pretty much what it is. That's how it behaves."
He cites the research from study after study documenting the negative effects pollution has on the human body. "These particles can penetrate the cell and start gumming up the works of structures like the nucleus, the mitochondria, just like an engine of your car. If you pour a little bit of sand in your gas tank over time, that engine isn't going to work very well. Same is true of the cells of your body."
Utah has a serious problem with pollution, according to The American Lung Association. The Association ranked cities in the Cache Valley, Salt Lake Valley and Utah Valley among the 13 cities with the worst air in the nation. And it's a sad, yet consistent ranking by many similar organizations.
The valleys along the Wasatch have just the right terrain to form an inversion. High mountains create a wall along the valley. When the air is stagnant and the ground is cold, it's as though a cling film is placed on the top of the valley bowl. All the emissions from our cars and local businesses rising into the air just stay there.
Air quality experts for the State of Utah measure the chemicals and the particulates in the air every hour of every day. Small filters show the particulates collected in the air over a 24 hour period. On a clear day, they are relatively clean. On a day when pollution levels are high, the filters are progressively gray.
Scientists can analyze the ingredients of the pollutants very efficiently. One of their biggest concerns is particulates known as pm 2.5s. These particles are each about 1/40th the size of a human hair. Because they are so fine, they enter our lungs and often can't escape.
Dr. Moench explains, "It isn't just through the lungs that you can get exposure to these particles; the brain is also vulnerable. Particles can get lodged in the lining of your nose, attach to the nerves in your nose and then go back to the brain."
These minute particles cause inflammation. Our lungs, blood stream and brain are vulnerable. The particulates, according to Moench, can cause life-threatening conditions. "It causes lung disease, heart disease, cancer, strokes, hypertension, low birth weight, premature birth, a smaller head size in newborns, diabetes, lupus, obesity, arthritis, depression and an increase in suicide rates."
It's unknown whether pollution was to blame for Park's strange behavior when he was two. But as soon as his mother Bridget scheduled the appointment for Park's autism test, she also cleaned up his surroundings and they all began a heavy metal detox diet for 30 days. Slowly, the outbursts of frustration subsided. Park started making eye contact and communicating again. Bridget explains, "There were some very big things that he was doing that were very alarming. They were behaviors of children with autism and those things went away, slowly, but they did."
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