SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Michelle Francis keeps one eye on Utah's air quality index and the other on her 9-year-old daughter's chronic asthma these days. The air pollution is so awful in her Salt Lake City suburb that Francis keeps her daughter indoors on many days to prevent her cough from being aggravated.
"When you add all the gunk in the air, it's too much," Francis said.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has singled out the greater Salt Lake region as having the nation's worst air for much of January, when an icy fog smothers mountain valleys for days or weeks at a time and traps lung-busting soot.
The pollution has turned so bad that more than 100 Utah doctors called Wednesday on authorities to immediately lower highway speed limits, curb industrial activity and make mass transit free for the rest of winter. Doctors say the microscopic soot — a shower of combustion particles from tailpipe and other emissions — can tax the lungs of even healthy people.
"We're in a public-health emergency for much of the winter," said Brian Moench, a 62-year-old anesthesiologist and president of Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment, which delivered the petition demanding action at the Utah Capitol.
The greater Salt Lake region had up to 130 micrograms of soot per cubic meter on Wednesday, or more than three times the federal clean-air limit, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
That's equivalent to a bad day in the Los Angeles area.
For 2 million Utah residents, there is no escape except to the snow-capped mountains that gleam in the sunshine thousands of feet higher, or to resort towns like Park City, where the Sundance Film Festival is under way.
"I wish there was something we could do about it," Francis, a school teacher 10 miles north of Salt Lake City, said.
Authorities have prohibited wood burning and urged people to limit driving. Vehicle emissions account for more than half of the trapped pollutants.