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Smoke from wildfire making Utahns ill

But BYU air expert says pollution level lower than in '80s

PROVO — Patients like Brent Rees of American Fork are starting to show up in emergency rooms with itchy eyes, ragged breathing and gravely voices they think can be blamed directly on smoke from a raging forest fire.

All three Intermountain Health Care hospitals in Utah County reported an increase in the number of patients coming in with respiratory distress, and Dr. Ron Barlow, an emergency room doctor at the Columbia Timpanogos Regional Hospital in Orem, said he expects more as the smoky days drag on.

Forest officials have achieved 10 percent containment by Friday afternoon of the fire that got away from them Tuesday near Cascade Springs. The fire, which was supposed to be carefully controlled by firefighters, had consumed 5,745 acres as of Friday afternoon and continued to pour smoke into Utah, Wasatch and Salt Lake County skies.

Such burns are done in a small forest area to reduce the old brush and trees that serve as fuel for wildfires.

State air-quality officials lifted a health advisory issued Wednesday but residents and local physicians remained worried.

"For people with a history of asthma, this is setting them off," Barlow said. "This is making them worse."

Rees said he was just getting over a bout of pneumonia. In fact, he finished his antibiotics Monday. Tuesday, he started coughing and feeling worse.

"I don't usually talk like I smoke," Barlow said Friday morning as he sat waiting for breathing treatments.

"I'm not normally asthmatic or anything like that. This has been really irritating."

Rees said he's concerned because he just changed jobs and he may not have insurance coverage that's in force.

"I'd like to send the bill to the Forest Service," he said. "That'd be nice."

Joyce Lewallen is a clinical asthma educator at the Timpanogos hospital. She's concerned about the very young, the very old and those with already compromised respiratory systems.

"I have a slight asthma component myself, and I found myself taking in deeper breaths this morning. I wondered about all those people out there who are already using inhalers because smoke is an irritant for us but a trigger for them."

Jess Gomez, spokesman for LDS Hospital in Salt Lake City, said none of the IHC hospitals in Salt Lake County are seeing an influx yet but pulmonary physicians expect if the smoke hangs around for more than a couple more days, they'll see patients.

BYU professor Arden Pope has spent 20 years studying air pollution and its effects. He said the reaction to the smoky haze is sort of funny because the levels in the 1980s were so much higher and he had a hard time convincing people that the situation was serious.

"The pollution is a little less than it used to be on the average in the 1980s," Pope said. "This looks bad. It smells bad, but it's also only moderately bad."

Pope said the monitors at the Lindon air-quality station showed 50 micrograms of particulate per cubic meter just before noon Friday. During the 1980s when Geneva Steel was operating, the monitors consistently measured 365 micrograms per cubic meter.

He also said it looks worse than it actually is because the tiny particles suspended in the air catch the light.

"If we had to breathe this stuff for months and years, we'd be in trouble," Pope said. "The good news is this will go away in a few days. Aren't we glad this isn't going to last?"

Pope said it's prudent to be reasonable. He's given up his midday bike ride and advised his friend to drive south to train for an upcoming marathon.

"Wood smoke can cause effects like more phlegm, itchy eyes, even tightness in the chest, but these are serious."

Dr. Barlow said breathing smoke over time has an additive effect. The bronchial tubes become a little more inflamed each day and the risks more serious.

"I'd suggest people don't delay getting to a doctor. If you catch it early, it's easier to deal with," he said.


E-mail: haddoc@desnews.com