The cost of bad air goes beyond pain and suffering

Jan 12 2013 - 11:44pm


Christmas night, 11:30 p.m., the harried nurse in McKay-Dee Hospital's emergency room said, "You're number 229, but since you're having trouble breathing we may push you up."

Breathing? I was gasping. I didn't know it yet, but pneumonia had smacked me hard. Every gasp felt like a mule kick.

"Scale of one-to-ten, how's your pain?" she said. "Eight," I said. "No, (gasp!) nine."

She brought me pain pills. I loved her.

It was a horrible night.

Bad air and the flu season had slammed the emergency room. That 229 was 10 times' normal, and local ERs are still being mobbed. What's going on?

Typical Utah toxic winter air, three times the "red" trigger level. The storm Thursday cleared it, but the muck will be back.

Did Utah's air cause my problems?

It did its part. I've always had sensitive lungs. Pollution makes them more susceptible to infection.

My nurse at McKay -- wonderful people, nurses -- said she's convinced everyone's lungs are damaged by bad air, just some more than others. Studies back her up, and there is no safe level.

I don't get why Utah's fiscal conservatives aren't up in arms about this.

Never mind the human toll, this is raising insurance rates, increasing Medicaid and Medicare loads, bankrupting us.

As a friend said, "Our politicians need to start giving more than lip service to our horrible air quality and start taking meaningful corrective action. I shouldn't have to spend $200 on a co-pay for a steroid inhaler this week just so I can function!"

Those costs add up. The Utah Department of Health says 8 percent of Utahns, more than 200,000, have asthma. Add the cardiac diseases, lung diseases, strokes, fetal damage and other things that bad air causes or makes worse -- it's expensive.

I figure my visit to the ER cost a couple thousand. I had an X-ray, CT scan and doctor's attention. With 229 of us, that's probably half a million dollars I, you, all our insurance companies paid out on one night at one hospital.

Add in extra prescriptions, lost work time and elderly whose systems can't handle the strain and die, our annual inversion is a fiscal disaster.

Studies show Utah's pollution takes two years off people's expected life span.

Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment, whose website ( has that study, and dozens others, puts the economic loss just from those shortened life spans at $1.3 billion a year, or one-tenth of the state's entire budget.

Gov. Gary Herbert was asked, in an interview for an upcoming film "Breathless in Zion," whether Kennecott Copper, which Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment calls the state's single largest polluter, should be allowed to expand its pollution allowance to enlarge its mine.

Instead of yes or no, Herbert talked about how Kennecott had sure improved, was doing a great job and deserved praise.

Nice, but who does Herbert work for? I thought, "me," but he sounded like the company PR guy.

Herbert and legislators always worry about the cost to business of cleaning up the air, but that cost doesn't go away.

It gets passed down to you and me, who pay it to the medical and funeral industries. Those are not industries I am anxious to patronize.

But as long as our state leaders are willing to tolerate the sort of air we've had this winter, and last winter, and the winter before, and every summer between, we have no choice.

So it's good the ERs at our hospitals are staffed by overworked, underpaid angels who take great care of us.

To them I am grateful. Our leaders? Not so much.

The Wasatch Rambler is the opinion of Charles Trentelman. He can be reached at 801-625-4232, or He also blogs at

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