A high-pressure weather system has left the Salt Lake skyline shrouded in a gray-brown haze this holiday season, prompting the exclamation: "Bah, hum muck."

An inversion in Salt Lake and Davis counties is pushing particulate pollution to dangerously high levels, say air-quality officials, who called for "no-burn days" on Wednesday and Thursday.Two teams of enforcement officers are patrolling neighborhoods in natural-gas-fueled cars, looking for people who are illegally burning coal or wood in their fireplaces or stoves.

Thursday morning's reading of particulates, also known as PM10, was 148 micrograms per cubic meter of air - a mere 2 micrograms below the federal health standard of 150.

Bob Dalley, director of the division's air-monitoring center, said the pollution levels are expected to get worse, lasting possibly a few weeks.

"This hasn't got a chance of breaking up," Dalley said. "There's nothing that's gonna stir this around until Saturday or Sunday, and even that's a little iffy. We may not see any break in this until after the first of the year."

This week's inversion has formed mainly in Salt Lake and Davis counties, sparing Ogden and Utah County. Dalley said that could be because of greater snow accumulations in Salt Lake and Davis. Snow keeps ground air cool, inhibiting vertical mixture of air, trapping pollutants at ground-level.

PM10, which means "particulate matter less than 10 microns (one-hundreth of a millimeter) in diameter," is one of the most dangerous air pollutants because it can easily lodge in the lungs, causing long-term respiratory problems and suppressing the immune system, particularly in children and the elderly.

To healthy people, PM10 is manifested readily as a minor irritation to the nose, sinuses and throat. To people suffering from acute respiratory diseases, the inhalation of PM10 can be fatal.

The pollutant is caused primarily by the burning of wood, coal and gasoline. It accumulates in temperature inversions, which stagnate the air in valleys.

Though the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has set a PM10 health advisory standard of 150, some groups, including the Utah Medical Association and the American Lung Association, believe the figure should be lowered to protect human health.

Until it is, state officials will issue "red-light" warnings when PM10 levels reach 120. On those "red" days, residents are prohibited from burning wood or coal, except as allowed by law.

The state is also asking people to reduce automobile trips and use public transportation. Industry is asked to decrease emissions by postponing certain operations until after the inversion is dispersed, Dalley said.

If PM10 levels get above the 150 standard, the state may ask commuters to participate in "no-drive days," which the state routinely calls for during summertime inversions when ground-level ozone readings are high.

Since 1992, the state has kept the Wasatch Front PM10 problem in check, with few violations of the health standard. If PM10 standards are routinely violated, however, the state would be forced to take more drastic control measures, such as an enhanced inspection and maintenance program for automobiles, said Carol Sisco, spokeswoman for the Utah Department of Environmental Quality.



No fires - even at ice rink

Like Ebenezer Scrooge to Bob Cratchit, the law is telling the Gallivan Center to put that fire out.

Despite the state's declaring a "red" no-burn day on Wednesday, a fire was burning brightly that evening next to the skating rink.

"They don't have permission to do that," said Marv Maxell, a compliance manager with the Utah Division of Air Quality.

Toni Geddes, manager of the Gallivan Center, said it was an oversight on the part of the ice rink staff. "They have the information to burn only on green days. I'm sorry if they didn't. I'll remind them," Geddes said.

Besides prohibiting the burning of wood and coal, the state is asking people to:

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- Reduce and consolidate automobile trips.

- Keep cars well-tuned.

- Walk or use public transportation.

Industry is being asked to decrease emissions by postponing certain pollution-intense operations until after the inversion is dispersed.

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