The Air We Breathe Is Brown

Kirsten Stoesser By Kirsten Stoesser, MD

High-reaching snow-capped mountains that pierce a startlingly blue sky in the cold crisp air with sunshine beaming down from up high – that is how I remember Salt Lake City when I first visited 25 years ago, and even when I returned 10 years later.  That vision has become muddied now. When I think of Salt Lake in the wintertime, I envision a heavy brown-gray sludge that settles in the valley like soup in a bowl; so thick you can only pour it out. You don’t always know how bad it is when you are in it, but when you drive higher up, to the bench line, and look down onto the top of the filthy sheet that obscures entire buildings and neighborhoods, it hits you.  You realize how lucky you are that you are no longer in it, among those poor souls breathing in that thick abomination. But then, inevitably, you must descend back down into the city and become one of them again – the helpless and afflicted.

Sometimes when I emerge from clinic in the evening, even in the dark of night, I know I am in the middle of it because I can smell it. I can taste it and it is unpleasant; it is nasty. My eyes burn and my nose runs. I cough a little and I put my hand over my mouth and nose. I run to my car and when I get home, I rush to get inside my house to try and seal it all out.

In pre-school, my kids had yellow days – when they could go out and play, but not if they had asthma. On red days, everyone stayed inside and jumped on the blow-up bouncy house in the children’s chapel that was on hand just for this occasion.  This is how we cope. We run away; we run inside; we change plans; we deny.

The inversion is what they call it here on the news, in the papers, and in casual speech among friends; as if it was okay.  As if it was not really a bad thing.  But I’m not fooled. I remember those pictures in my 4th grade Social Studies textbook of the smog in Los Angeles, and I know this inversion looks just like that smog. It is smog. It is pollution and toxic chemicals, and particulate matter that we are breathing in; and it is damaging us.

Heart attacks, strokes, premature death, hypertension in children, autism, attention deficit, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, lung cancer, asthma, bronchitis, premature birth, fetal death, and fetal birth defects; all brought to you at higher rates courtesy of air pollution.

As a child of a “chemical family” in a “chemical factory town” that was raised on “better living through chemistry,” I know the rhetoric. I recall the spiel that dioxins aren’t bad, that they don’t kill the fish, and they don’t destroy the rivers – except for the unfortunate truth that they do.

We live in a basin of similar rhetoric. ‘There has always been an inversion; even the native peoples to these lands described such a phenomenon, so there is no use in doing anything about it.’  ‘There is no major air pollution from industrial giants in the region, from the mining operations, from gas and oil refineries and the incinerating of medical waste.’  ‘We are powerless to effect any lasting change.’

We can be small and affect our own microcosms with carpooling, taking TRAX, wearing an N95 respirator mask while jogging, no longer burning wood in our own fireplace.  But this is a drop in the ocean, isn’t it? The use of one aluminum bottle by one person for a lifetime does not negate the effects of a production line that continues to crank out thousands of plastic water bottles every day for eternity.

The way to effect big change is to group together, go after the source, change culture, change policies, and change priorities.  How fortunate we are that we have groups already organized along the Wasatch Front, like Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment ( and Utah Moms for Clean Air ( that have done so much of this groundwork for us already. But there is much to do. The air is still brown and palpable on too many days.  I can still taste it. I implore you to get involved. Your friends, children, grandchildren, pets, neighbors, and yes, even complete strangers, will thank you.

Turn the sky blue.

 Kirsten Stoesser, MD is an assistant professor in the Department of Family and Preventive Medicine at the University of Utah School of Medicine.  She is also serving as Associate Director for the Residency Program.

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