‘The place we love isn’t healthy’: Millcreek couple weighs decision of moving due to poor air quality

Feb 8, 2024, 5:44 PM | Updated: Feb 12, 2024, 10:38 am

SALT LAKE CITY — “If it’s a bad day here with air, I cough, cough, cough, cough.”

Millcreek resident and Utah native Mark Barnes has struggled with a cough for a decade.

“It was disrupting my sleep,” he said. “We really couldn’t figure out any specific cause.”

His doctors tried for years to get to the bottom of his chronic cough. But it wasn’t until Barnes and his family took a trip to Costa Rica that clued them in.

“We did a two-day excursion in the jungle rafting down a river, and everybody in the family was like, ‘you’re not coughing,'” he said. “I didn’t have a bad cough like I usually do here.”

After more tests, Barnes was diagnosed with Reactive Airway Disease, a condition similar to asthma.

“I’m very sensitive to things like particulates in the air and pollution,” he said.

“Often when we have bad air quality, people will notice things like cough, sore throat, maybe more shortness of breath. Sometimes they can get kind of irritation of the mucous membrane. I’ve had people complain of sort of eye irritation, sometimes headaches, things like that,” said Dr. Denitza Blagev, a pulmonary and critical care physician with Intermountain Health.

Mark Barnes and his wife, Joanna Smith. (KSL TV) Mark Barnes and his wife, Joanna Smith. (KSL TV) Dr. Denitza Blagev, a pulmonary and critical care physician with Intermountain Health. (KSL TV)

Dr. Blagev said the good news is that overall, Utah’s air quality is average, but sometimes it can take a drastic turn.

“On a bad day, we can be the worst in the nation for air quality,” she said.

According to Dr. Blagev, hospital admissions increase in more polluted areas, as well as the risk of developing asthma.

“The reality is that it really affects all of us,” she said. “So, a 25-year-old with no health problems is at increased risk of developing lung disease, heart disease, lung cancer as a result of the air pollution exposure.”

It’s that pollution that Barnes’ doctor said would take years off his life – if he stayed in Utah.

“We have all kinds of connections to Salt Lake, so it’s not really an easy task to just pull up roots and go someplace else,” he said.

Barnes and his wife, Joanna, run a law firm together and have a blended family of eight children. They’ve tried everything to address his cough but are now having to accept a new reality.

“The hardest part now is that the place we love isn’t healthy for Mark,” Joanna said. “It’s frustrating that we might have to leave before policies can fix this, that the time has run out probably for us. This is a very fixable problem.”

Both Joanna and Mark think that change needs to happen.

“I think we got to get back to being serious about cleaning up the air and improving the environment,” he said. “We all end up being injured by having bad air, and I think unless we get serious about it, all of us are going to feel it.”

Dr. Blagev offered some ways to protect yourself and your family from dangerous air pollution:

  • Exercise indoors on a poor air quality day.
  • Carpool or take public transit when you can.
  • Wear an N95 mask outside.
  • Make sure your indoor filters are cleaned regularly.
  • Consider investing in an air purifier if you’re sensitive to air pollution.
To monitor air quality in the area, check the Air Quality Index on

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‘The place we love isn’t healthy’: Millcreek couple weighs decision of moving due to poor air quality