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Jeffrey D. Allred, KSL

The unexpected effects of an inversion, and how to prepare for them

By Katie Workman, | Posted - Dec. 19, 2019 at 2:25 p.m.

SALT LAKE CITY — The inversion struck the Wasatch Front early this year, and its pollution affects residents in unexpected and dangerous ways.

While the effects of pollution are generally pervasive, an inversion marks the worst of them as it traps unclean air inside the valley.

However, becoming aware of the effects of inversions may be the first step to mitigating them, and there’s no shortage of recommended solutions.

Respiratory-related hospital visits

First, both pollution and inversions are well-documented to increase the number of respiratory-related hospital visits in the areas they affect.

One of the first academic papers on this issue was published by a BYU researcher in 1991, which showed that asthma-related hospitalizations in Salt Lake and Cache valleys increased with exposure to particulate matter emissions.

During inversions, PM is formed via chemical reactions in the atmosphere in addition to regular means, which can lead a similar rise in hospitalizations.

Inversions are a cause in sending over 200 people to the emergency room with pneumonia each year, according to the University of Utah.

The Utah Department of Health recommends seasonal action to help prevent seasonal respiratory-related health problems, including:

  • Preparing one’s home for the winter months, cleaning, and keeping animals outside the bedroom to reduce allergens.
  • Researching and consulting a doctor about seasonal allergy changes
  • Dressing warmly for weather shifts
  • Creating an asthma action plan with one’s doctor
  • Receiving flu shots to prevent sickness and pneumonia.

Mental health

Beyond physical ailments, the inversion might also affect residents’ mental health. Multiple studies in the past 10 years, summarized here, have found that as nitric oxide and PM emissions rise, depression and psychiatric disorders rise with them.

On the extreme ends of the spectrum, pollution has also been found to increase suicidal thoughts and anxiety in children. A global study published on Dec. 18, 2019 suggests that the relationship between pollution and mental health might be so strong that cutting pollutant-laden emissions worldwide to meet EU regulations, could prevent up to 15% of cases of depression.

While the relationship between psychiatric disorders and pollution is an ongoing subject of research, the correlation thus far hasn't been positive. For those struggling with mental health, an inversion can possibly worsen symptoms.

Creating a season-specific plan with a medical professional, speaking with familial and support networks and crisis lines, and seeking other traditional resources like counseling may help. A list of these resources can be found below.

Cognition and development

Polluted air has also been found to diminish education and development among children.

More specifically, researchers have found that pollution creates “smog in our brains,” which contributes to early cognitive decline for the elderly, and worsened performance on IQ tests in children. Studies have also found that polluted air marginally decreases GPA, and according to the CDC, asthma is also a leading cause of school absenteeism nationally.

A national study from the University of Utah published last year found that low-income and minority schoolchildren, especially pre-kindergartners, are the most at risk from the adverse effects of air quality.

The CDC suggests combatting asthma absenteeism by increasing education between schools and parents on the issue, providing alternative physical activity options for asthma-affected students, and ensuring students have access to asthma-related healthcare at school.

The EPA also has a comprehensive list of recommendations on how individuals can reduce their air pollution by carpooling, purchasing eco-friendly appliances and cleaning products, and avoiding the usage of wood stoves and fireplaces. Many seemingly small lifestyle changes and buying habits can decrease exposure to harmful pollutants.


Inversions might initially seem straightforward, but can be dangerous for Utahns in unexpected ways. Seemingly unrelated problems, like mental health or cognitive delays, may have deep roots in air quality. Becoming aware of how the inversion affects the state offers opportunities for individuals to prepare, connect with local resources, and diminish the adverse effects of pollution in their lives.

Mental Health Resources

Crisis Hotlines

  • Utah County Crisis Line: 801-691-5433
  • Salt Lake County/UNI Crisis Line: 801-587-3000
  • Wasatch Mental Health Crisis Line: 801-373-7393
  • National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK (8255)
  • Trevor Project Hotline for LGBTQ teens: 1-866-488-7386
  • Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s National helpline: 1-800-662-4357

Mental Health Support Groups

Locating Community Health Centers and treatment

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