Does the air we breathe cause disabilities?


For decades, Utah has dealt with bad air due to inversions. Research shows that the air has improved over the years, but that does not mean it has and cannot directly affect the public health according to Rebecca Steve, a doctoral student at the University of Utah.

So, what’s being done and who’s in charge?

To be able to answer these questions, we first must know how the air is measured and what is considered bad air. This is where Bo Call, Manager of Air Monitoring for the Division of Air Quality, from State of Utah Environmental Quality, comes into place. Call is an expert at what he does and looks over a team of around 15 people.


Photo courtesy of Utah Department of Environmental Quality. Bo Call checking monitoring equipment at the Air monitoring Center chase station.

The Environmental Protection Agency has a standard level that must be met across the nation. If the air quality index (AQI) is over the standard, they monitor changes that need to be made to lower the AQI. These standards change whenever the science changes or is more advanced and is checked every five years. Currently that standard is 35 AQI. Anything over the standard is considered harmful to human health or a danger to the public.

There are stations spread out around the more populated areas in Utah and these stations are shelters that look and act like sheds. They protect the machines that receive information through filters. These machines filter all the particles in the air and clean out all the bugs and trash that gets caught in them. They run for 24 hours and, after collecting all the air particles, assigned employees remove a small circular container with the filter and take it back to the labs. Although this is very helpful, there are also more automatic ways of collecting data through computer systems and servers that run hourly.


Machine that intakes filters above stations

After Call had shared this information with me I asked what the data was like over the years and if the air had gotten worse or progressed.


Tube where filters go through to be retreated and processed.

“Everything has gone down significantly, but standards have gone down as well,” Call said.  He also added that 70 percent of air pollution is not emitted by humans but is caused naturally from the earth’s atmosphere.


Filters show clean air on the left and gradually progress to low or bad air quality.

Call stated, “we control most of our bad air, in many ways.” Although there are many things that can be done differently for better air, few people are aware and very little view this as an environmental alarm.


This PM2.5 chart from 2016-2017 shows peaks indicating inversions and spikes caused by Utah citizens.

Better air means change, and change is not easy when Utah has a booming economy and one of the largest growing populations in the United States. Utah relies on industries and businesses that produce our products and are consumed by most. Politicians and the government have a hand in almost everything, including how much research is funded. Change is costly and will take years. Politicians run by votes and will do what it takes to make sure they are elected as our leaders.

Rebecca Steve, PhD student at the U, tackles this problem daily. She oversees a group of students that are trying to prove a direct correlation between bad air, diseases, deformities and death. These findings can change lives and future generations.

Steve is a cancer survivor. She lost a brother to cancer three years ago. She is five years cancer free and, because of what she has been through, she has decided it is time to stand up and have a voice in a real possibility that can be proven.


Photo courtesy, TED talk Salt Lake City Rebecca Steve is asked to share on TED her journey and goals with Utah air.

After a long, tiring year, Steve will be receiving confidential records and files of the Utah population database within the next month. These records require extensive background checks. She will not only be able to see where everyone is currently living, but she will also be able to branch out and see where their parents and grandparents lived. Steve will compare air quality records and data to where people are living to find a correlation and pattern. She will be able to see how the environment impacts genes drastically and can influence health outcomes. This event will be a breakthrough for humanity. Scientists will be able to more directly find a correlation between air, dirt, dust, water and our health.

“We carry germs that can contaminate our offspring. This could potentially impact generations to come,” Steve states. She is trying to prove that the air we intake can cause germs to reach our bloodstreams. Bloodstreams can directly impact placentas and babies in the womb. With this information she will specifically show that low air quality can cause diseases such as autism and stillbirths.

“When we make a connection through ancestral exposures and environmental impacts, we will see that genes can drastically influence health outcomes,” said Steve. In order to progress, there must be careful monitoring of health effects. There are small changes and policies that Utah citizens should commit to, such as public transportation, carpools, idle free cars and lowering thermostats at home. This will have an impact on children, their grandchildren and great grandchildren. It’s no longer a matter of staying inside. Utah is at risk if there are no changes made individually and as a population.