Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Be Nice to Your Lungs

Back in November I was contacted out of the blue by a gal asking me to write a piece about national Lung Cancer Awareness month (which was in November). Because I am a yoga teacher and I have a blog that is dedicated to living a healthy lifestyle, she thought it would be a great idea for my blog. I couldn't agree more!
I obviously failed to publish my post during November, but I think this post is even more relevant for me and my neighbors as we are now in the "thick" of inversion season (pun intended).
First, let me tell you about the woman who reached out to me. Her name is Heather Von St. James. She was diagnosed with mesothelioma at the age of 36. "What is mesothelioma?" you might ask? Take the time to watch the video below and hear Heather's story. I knew nothing about the disease before hearing her story. Heather is my same age which certainly hit home. Her story reminds me why it is so important to take care of our bodies in any and every way that we are capable. In Heather's case, prevention would have been challenging as she was exposed to asbestos as a child, however, there is much that we can do on a daily basis to help keep ourselves healthy.
Now to the reason this is especially relevant for me and my fellow Salt Lake Valley inhabitants now. You see, the Salt Lake Valley is a place where it can be difficult — if not flat out impossible — to avoid air pollution due to the dreaded inversion we have during the winter months. I will refer to the City of Salt Lake web site for the scientific explanation:
"When normal atmospheric conditions (cool air above, warm air below) become inverted, a dense layer of cold air is trapped under a layer of warm air. The warm layer acts much like a lid, trapping pollutants in the cold air near the valley floor. The Wasatch Front valleys and their surrounding mountains act like a bowl, keeping this cold air in the valleys. The snow-covered valley floors reflect rather than absorb the heat from the sun, preventing the normal vertical mixing of warm and cold air. Fog exacerbates the problem, facilitating chemical reactions that create even more particles and higher pollutant concentrations. The longer the inversion lasts, the higher the levels of pollution trapped under it. The warm inversion air layer is usually displaced by a strong storm system which restores air quality to healthy levels." (1)
#barf #hack #cough
According to an article in USA Today, when inversion levels are at their peak, "Utah's pollution index is off the charts with readings routinely exceeding a scale that tops out at 70 micrograms a cubic meter. The EPA sets a standard for clean air at no more than 35 micrograms." (2)
As you can imagine, this can be a time of distress for residents living in "the bowl." According to John Horel, a professor in the University of Utah’s department of atmospheric sciences, during the span of December 2013–January 2014, "pollution levels exceeded the standard set for fine particles for a total of 30 days." My asthmatic friends can attest to the onset of breathing trouble that occurs. If you are lucky, you are only effected by a gravelly voice, mildly-sore throats, and having to tolerate the stinky air. If you are asthmatic or already have trouble breathing, the inversion can mean months of irritation until it subsides, one friend of mine wakes to labored breathing so harsh she has to resort to hot steam baths in the middle of the night on a regular basis.
Most of us don't have a vacation home in Fiji that we can retreat to when the air gets bad, so what can we do to reduce our risk of exposure to the inversion, and to air-borne cancer-causing substances?
1. Reduce your output
Have you ever been walking through the parking lot and noticed that someone has left their car running, only to find that there is someone sitting in the car while it idles. If you are like me, it takes all you have not to walk over, open their door, and turn the car off for them. If you are not like me, maybe you might be someone who does this. Please, I beg you to turn off your car if you are sitting in a parking lot!
According to an article in USA Today, "Vehicle emissions account for over half of the pollutants." Right away, that should give us all incentive to drive a little less. Utah doctors have gone so far as to ask that public transit be made free during winter months just to get people off the road.
Doctors also advise that it is best to simply stay inside, avoiding any outdoor exercise or activities while there is the smoggy soup covering the valley. Salt Lake City pediatrician Ellie Brownstein said. "It's essentially like smoking. Instead of breathing clean air, you're breathing particles that make it harder for your lungs to function and get oxygen." (2)
The Mesothelioma Cancer Alliance states that, "though smoking is more commonly associated with traditional lung carcinomas. Smoking tends to enhance risk even further in those who were also exposed to asbestos." (3) This leads me to believe that exposure to inversion could also enhance your risk were you to be exposed to asbestos.
The Utah Air Quality web site has many more great suggestions for reducing your output as well.
2. Get involved
There are many volunteer opportunities out there to help spread awareness about lung cancer, inversion, etc. Last year, I participated in the Utah Clear the Air Challenge in which you logged all the miles you managed not to drive during a single month. But this is something that you could do all year long.
Here are a few other sites to help you get started:
3. Get checked
If you think you might have been exposed to asbestos in your lifetime, or if you are experiencing symptoms, it would be wise to be checked as "There is a great deal of latency associated with mesothelioma between exposure to asbestos and the onset of symptoms."

(1) "Winter Inversions: What Are They and What We Can All Do To Help." Winter Inversions: What Are They and What We Can All Do To Help. Web. 12 Jan. 2015.
(2) Press, Paul. "Sickening Fog Settles over Salt Lake City Area." USA Today. Gannett, 23 Jan. 2013. Web. 12 Jan. 2015.
(3) "Mesothelioma Causes." - Asbestos Exposure and Mesothelioma. Web. 12 Jan. 2015.