On a day when the Utah Division of Air Quality categorized Salt Lake’s air as “Unhealthy” on their Air Quality Index, demonstrators gathered outside Trolley Square on Tuesday to raise awareness of the state’s inversion problem.
As a part of what organizers are calling the “Twelve Polluted Days of Christmas,” clean air advocates wore Santa hats and elf costumes, hoping to combine holiday cheer with an issue that has plagued Utahns early and often this season.
Decked out in holiday apparel and wearing masks to protect their lungs from pollution, about a dozen protestors gather on the sidewalk along 700 East, one of the busiest streets in Salt Lake. A man dressed as Santa Claus waves to the constant stream of traffic, holding a sign that says, “Breathing clean air is the birthright of every child.”
And who better to speak for children than Santa Claus?
"We're actually now going to Santa and saying all we want for Christmas is clean air. Just give us clean air, please. Stuff our stockings with clean air," said Cherise Udell, founder of Utah Moms for Clean Air.
Udell is trying to raise awareness of air quality issues in Utah, ever mindful of the season’s holiday cheer.
"So we have some creative ideas we're doing. This is one of the ideas, dressing up as Santa and elves and employing their support to try to clean up Utah's air- saying basically that our government has been unresponsive," Udell said.
On a day like today, it’s hard to argue that air pollution isn’t a problem in Salt Lake. A brownish haze surrounds us, making this city’s iconic mountainous backdrop harder to appreciate. The Utah Division of Air Quality has deemed this day “unhealthy” for everyone—even those in otherwise good health.
For residents with health issues such as asthma or COPD, winter inversion problems came earlier than usual this year. Dr. Denitza Blagev, who specializes in pulmonary and critical care, has noticed an uptick in problems related to the inversion in the past week or so.
"So we've seen an increase in the number of calls and patients complaining of shortness of breath, chest tightens, chest burning. And it seems to be progressively getting worse over the course of that time, as the air pollution accumulates in the air," Blagev said.
Dr. Blagev previously worked in Boston and San Francisco. She said one thing that sets Salt Lake apart from other metropolitan areas is the stark transition from clean air to polluted air.
"For most other places where you have these long-term pollutants over bigger cities, when people are affected by the air pollution, I think often they just figure, 'Well that's just how bad my asthma is,'" Blagev said.
Utahns, on the other hand, experience symptoms more dramatically when the inversion arrives. Blagev says that makes it easier for residents to attribute symptoms to the pollution.
Living in Salt Lake, Udell has developed an environmentally-induced asthma within the past year, and her two kids have chronic sinus and ear infections, meaning they have to stay inside on days with poor air quality. So one has to wonder: has her family thought about moving?
"Oh we've looked at property, we have. We've looked at property in Park City, up Emmigration Canyon, so that would be the most likely thing we would do is move up the canyon, move to Park City. Re-center our lives up in those areas. But we like it here in Salt Lake City. It's the only reason we would leave," Udell said. "The only reason we would leave is because of how bad the air is every year, and that our politicians really refuse to do anything about it."
And if leaving the community she calls home seems like an extreme decision, Udell said members of Utah Moms for Clean Air have already done it. Dr. Blagev also said some of her patients made the same decision Udell is now considering.