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Gray skies and moods to linger

Bad air days may also trigger more bad hair days

SHARE Gray skies and moods to linger

"Nastier and nastier and nastier." That's National Weather Service meteorologist Todd Hall's forecast for the coming week. And he wasn't even talking about our moods.

Fog caused several delays at Salt Lake City International Airport Saturday night, and the murky skies sprinkled with occasional murky sunshine are expected to continue until at least next Thursday, when maybe some instability will come along to make us all feel more stable again.

Until then, an inversion will continue to trap yucky particulates and dense fog in northern Utah basins, making some of us cranky and depressed, predicts University of Utah psychiatry professor Dr. David Tomb.

Actually it's not the bad air that tends to get us down, he says, it's the grayness. In that way we're all sort of like the subset of the population that's affected by seasonal affective disorder, also known as SAD.

"There's no reason to believe that there's a sharp boundary between those people with SAD and people who feel a little bummed out, who snap at the kids" when the skies are gray and the days short, Tomb says — although typically it takes about two weeks of continual low light to make people feel really irritable.

There's "unconvincing evidence" (from what academicians ironically call "the gray literature") that the pollution itself causes psychological symptoms, says Brigham Young University professor C. Arden Pope, but the effect doesn't hold up when the studies factor out lack of sunlight. In people with cardiovascular and respiratory problems, depression can be a secondary effect of their diseases, which are indeed worsened by air pollution, he says.

Some people actually enjoy a cloudy, fogged-in feeling, says Salt Lake City psychologist E. Kay Barickman. To them, the murk is "almost womb-like," she says. But for most people, especially those with conditions like fibromyalgia and respiratory distress — people who have trouble breathing or whose chronic pain is sensitive to the weather — the endless grayness and the fear about going out in the bad air can make them moody. "The body and mind are so closely intertwined, one can't help but affect the other," Barickman says.

During these dreary winter days, psychiatrist Tomb suggests, try to spend most of your time in well-lighted rooms, "the more light in the room the better." Patients with full-blown SAD do better if they sit for at least half an hour a day in front of "light boxes." A trip to a tanning salon won't help, though, because the light needs to come in through the pupil to have an effect.

Also, to cheer up, think about the fact that if there were snow on the ground, the inversion would be a lot worse.

"When there's snow on the ground, the inversions are stronger and shallower," trapping pollution in a smaller volume of air, thus increasing the concentrations of pollutants, explains Bob Dalley, manager of the air monitoring section of the state's Division of Air Quality.

Last winter, Salt Lake and Davis counties had 23 "red" days in which wood burning was restricted. "This winter is mimicking last winter, when we had prolonged inversion spells in January and February," says Dalley. This January, however, has seen only "yellow" burn days; the last "red" day was on Dec. 20. Cache Valley, on the other hand, has already had nine "red" days so far this winter.

It may be the fog that has kept the pollution levels from rising to "red" status in the Salt Lake area, says Dalley. Sometimes the fog can remove pollution particles, which is what has happened during the past few days, he says. "But that may not be the case as the fog persists."

Dave Whiteman, a research professor in the department of meteorology at the University of Utah, reminds us that inversions — or "cold air pools" as scientists sometimes call them — can stick around for quite a while. Cold air gets trapped near the ground, trapping more and more air pollutants with it as the days go by. The tiny particles then act as a site for fog to condense.

And all that fog and smog can cause solar radiation to reflect back into space, keeping the ground from warming up and causing the whole sorry process to continue. When there's snow on the ground, that's one more layer the sun can't get through to warm the ground, so temperatures drop even more.

Whiteman is researching cold air pools, which he says "haven't been studied in enough scientific detail." He'll particularly be looking at what conditions are needed to both form and break up the inversions. Sometimes when a frontal system comes through it's strong enough to scour the air, but it depends partly on what time of day it happens, he says.

In the meantime, as we await a strong wind, we can be even more bummed out by this fact: Bad air days can also be bad hair days. The dirty air, says hair stylist Vincent Penley of Sacred Roots salon in Salt Lake City, clings to the cuticles, making our hair look dirty, too.

E-mail: jarvik@desnews.com