Healthy for Whom? Utah freeways choking asthmatic kids?

This story explores how freeways may cause children in certain Utah neighborhoods to be hospitalized more often. It is a sidebar to the third part of her series on health disparities in Salt Lake City.

Brenda Marshall is considering stocking up on masks.

During inversions, when Salt Lake County has some of the worst pollution in the nation, she has certain rules for her asthmatic grandson, Ra’ Shawn Finley Marshall, 10.

“If I’m dropping him off at the day care, I make him put something over his nose and mouth so he’s not breathing that air quality in,” she said. “I pick him up, and I hurry and get him in the house and keep him there until morning.”

There’s little doubt that the polluted valley air makes breathing harder for asthmatics — it contributes to the increased use of medications, doctor visits and asthma hospitalizations, according to Utah pediatricians and the state health department.

But children like Ra’ Shawn, who lives near Interstate 15 in Salt Lake City, or who go to school near freeways are at greater risk of having worse asthma, according to several studies.

Toxic air emitted by passing tailpipes — including particulate matter, black carbon, carbon monoxide and nitrogen oxides — may be even worse for their health than regional air pollution.

“We know these pollutants are the most harmful right out of the tailpipe,” said Michelle Hofmann, a Riverton pediatrician who advocates for clean air policies.

Besides making asthma worse, tailpipe emissions have been linked to premature births, impaired lung development, childhood cancer, cardiovascular disease and premature death. And it’s poor communities — in Utah and in the nation — that are at the most risk from the pollution.

Getting a 'double whammy'

U.S. studies on the effects of air pollution on children’s health, largely out of Southern California, have shown the fresh emissions from high-volume traffic roadways are sending children who live nearby to hospitals more often for asthma — and that living near major roadways probably contributes to the development of asthma.

The 2003 East Bay Children’s Respiratory Health Study found higher concentrations of black carbon and nitrogen oxides at schools downwind from freeways in Alameda County, which was associated with more asthma diagnoses.

That study led to a California ban against building schools within 500 feet of the closest traffic lane of freeways as busy as Interstate 15, I-215, I-80 and Bangerter Highway in Utah.

A 2010 study from the University of Southern California’s Children’s Health Study found exposure to fresh emissions at schools was just as likely to contribute to the development of asthma as living near freeways, even though children spend less time at school. That may be because children are dropped off at school during rush hour and they may inhale more pollution into their lungs while playing outside at recess or P.E., according to the study.

Another California study found pollution may pose a bigger threat to the health of poor children whose parents have lower education levels: Children were at greater risk of developing asthma if they lived near polluted roadways and if their parents reported high levels of stress.

Utah doesn’t have a law protecting schoolchildren from freeway pollution exposure: Statewide, there are 24 primary and secondary schools located within 500 feet of a roadway where the speed limit is more than 50 mph, according to a University of Utah study. It also showed that communities near high-speed roads were more likely to be poor and less educated. Housing is typically less expensive near busy roadways.

“Those kids seem to be getting a disproportionate share of pollution,” said William McDonnell, director of the U.’s Center for Children’s Environmental Health Law & Policy.

The group unsuccessfully sought grant money to also study whether a law banning the building of schools near freeways was justified in Utah. They wanted to see whether children exposed to a “double whammy” of pollution — the Salt Lake Valley air, along with the pollution associated with a nearby busy roadway — go to the ER more often.

“Do we see even a greater increase in those kids getting a second dose of pollution, which would make it more important to pass a law in areas with high ambient air pollution [like Salt Lake County]?” McDonnell asks.

While it has been years since Ra’ Shawn has been hospitalized for asthma, he and his grandmother have noticed his attacks have lessened since he stopped going to Salt Lake City’s Jackson Elementary, which has playing fields a residential street away from I-15. He now attends Beacon Heights Elementary below Foothill Drive.

“He had to use his [rescue] inhaler a whole lot more,” Marshall recalled. “It was like an every week deal.”

A win for West Valley kids

 Five schools in West Valley City sit right next to the route of the Mountain View Corridor — some within 200 feet — under construction by the Utah Department of Transportation.

But unlike children across the Salt Lake Valley, students at those schools will be better protected from freeway pollutants.

As part of a landmark agreement, UDOT agreed to set aside $1 million to monitor to-be-determined pollutants along the 5800 West corridor. The monitoring, not required by federal or state law, comes thanks to pressure from parents and environmental groups.

“It will be new information from our local area on what the air-pollutant mix is near these highways,” says Hofmann, a member of a group making recommendations to UDOT on how to reduce exposure to the corridor’s pollution.

The data could be used to change recess and P.E. times, based on pollution levels.

UDOT also offered to spend up to $3.1 million on filtration systems at the nearby schools — Hillside, Whittier and West Valley elementary schools, along with Hunter Junior and Hunter High — to better clean the indoor air. The Hillside playgrounds and Hunter High ballfields will border the roadway.

The schools may require modified systems to deliver cleaner air to the classrooms, says Paul Roberts, chief scientific officer of Sonoma Technology Inc., the California-based contractor who will monitor pollution near the Utah schools. Such systems cost $150,000 per school in Las Vegas, where similar monitoring and mitigation was required when U.S. 95 expanded near three schools.

“It [the cost] could vary from that to two times that easily depending on size of the school,” Roberts said.

Before the changes, the Las Vegas classrooms were filled with rush-hour pollution by ventilation systems. Roberts said the new systems filter out up to 98 percent of black carbon, compared with a low of 45 percent before.

Black carbon, or soot emitted from diesel engines, contributes to particulate matter that blights the valley air and has been shown to cause lung damage and premature death, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

“We’re really fighting for kids who may not even be born yet [to protect them from] the health risks that the [Mountain View] corridor has,” says Linda Hansen, a regional PTA director in the Granite School District who also is on UDOT’s air quality group.

Filters for all?

The West Valley City schools are within 200 feet to about 1,600 feet of the yet-to-be-built freeway. Studies show there are health risks for children living up to around 1,600 feet from major roadways.

There are plenty of other Salt Lake County schools near existing freeways within that danger zone: A Tribune mapping analysis found at least 43 schools in the county are located within 1,600 feet of I-15, I-80, I-215 or Bangerter Highway, with slightly more than half of those pre-kindergarten and elementary schools . A map of those schools is available at

And around 200 schools are within the same distance of heavily traveled roadways, including state routes and major valley thoroughfares such as 700 East, State Street, 2100 South, 5400 South and Van Winkle Expressway.

On Salt Lake City’s west side, which has some of the state’s highest rates of emergency room visits and hospitalizations for asthma, schools are surrounded by three freeways, I-15, I-215 and I-80. And during inversions, those residents and schoolchildren can’t get above the smog because they live in the lowest portion of the valley.

Hansen said those children deserve protection, too. School districts don’t have the money for filtration systems, she noted, but UDOT or the Legislature should “pony up.”

“If we can do something that will affect the health of kids, we’re bound as adults to do what we can to help them,” Hansen said. “It’s scary to think we wouldn’t step in and do something.”

Before UDOT commits to retroactively paying for filters, or doing it for all future freeway projects, it needs to study how the filters work on the Mountain View Corridor project first, spokeswoman Tania Mashburn said.

“It’s hard to say yes or no. It’s too big of an issue that we don’t understand fully,” she said.

Hofmann, the pediatrician, expects to use data from the West Valley City monitors to advocate for children attending schools near existing freeways.

Students at Woods Cross High School are among children who could benefit, said Cameron Cova, president of the advocacy group Breathe Utah and member of the Mountain View working group. “There’s already so much industry pollution there because of the refineries,” she said. Plus, “the outdoor fields are literally adjacent to I-15.”

Mindi Bessette wants the filters, too. Three of her four children have asthma. One is school-age, and attends Vista Elementary, about 1,200 feet from I-215. The family lives within 1,600 feet of Bangerter Highway.

“If the air they’re breathing is cleaner and healthier [with filters], it’s got to help their immune systems,” Bessette said.

For now, it is her youngest daughter, 19-month-old Elisabeth who struggles the most, with two recent urgent care visits related to asthma.

“Sometimes we wonder if the air quality is going to get so terrible, we’re going to need to leave the valley,” Bessette said. “It’s too hard to watch her struggle and be sick.”

Tribune Computer Assisted Reporting Editor Tony Semerad contributed to this report.

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