Look outside during a “red air” day and it’s easy to see why many Utah residents have started to ask whether it’s worth living in a place where they can’t go outside without coughing or wheezing.
In the latest State of the Air report from the American Lung Association, the Salt Lake City-Provo-Orem metropolitan area ranked eighth for the most short-term particle pollution, while Logan ranked 11th. Salt Lake City also placed 18th for the worst ozone pollution.
“I have a number of friends and colleagues who have either decided to leave the valley or are considering it due to the air quality and long-term health concerns,” says Bruce Lorange, a Salt Lake City resident and local business owner of O2TODAY, which makes protective masks.
Overall, Utah averages an F grade for ozone and a D for particle pollution, according to the American Lung Association.
Particulate matter is especially harmful because it can be less than 2.5 micrometers, making it smaller than pollen and some bacteria. This allows the tiny particles to get into the deepest and most sensitive part of the lungs.
Particle pollution is also responsible for the smog that covers the valley on inverted days. Bad air quality effects everyone, but has a significant impact on sensitive groups, including children, the elderly and people with pre-existing health problems.
“Air quality in Utah gets so bad in the winter, I am forced to move outside of the state during the inversion season,” says Max Adam, a 90-year-old Salt Lake resident with emphysema.
There are many reasons why the air quality is in such bad shape, but the main cause is inversion, a naturally occurring weather pattern that traps the polluted air in the valley, keeping it from dispersing into the atmosphere. An inversion happens when temperatures increase with increasing altitude.
According to UCAIR, the amount of pollution doubles each day of an inversion.
Along with the smog that blankets the Salt Lake Valley, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says elevated pollution levels contribute to a variety of health problems. Short-term exposure to polluted air can cause temporary irritation in a healthy person’s respiratory system, while long-term exposure can lead to decreased lung function and development of chronic respiratory illnesses.
“I can tell when the air quality is getting worse just by how my throat and chest feel,” says Ben Wheeler, a Salt Lake resident and University of Utah student. “On red and orange days, my throat is oftentimes sore, and my chest feels heavy, like I just chain-smoked a pack of cigarettes.”
Still, Utah’s air quality is slowly getting better, according to the EPA’s annual report. Since the 1990s, carbon monoxide has dropped by 77 percent and nitrogen dioxides has been reduced by 56 percent. From 1970-2016, emissions from the most common pollutants have dropped by 73 percent, according to the EPA.
The agency also collects data on how many days the “unhealthy for sensitive groups” level is hit. In 2002, Salt Lake had 65 days marked “unhealthy.” In 2016, that number went down to 28 days.
“We have seen actual improvements in air quality, even though we have been growing,” says Bryce Bird, director of the Utah Division of Air Quality. The drop of pollutants, he says, is mostly due to the federal clean air standards becoming stricter and “at the same time, technology developments are fueling cleaner ways for the industry to operate and for people to live their lives by minimizing their carbon footprint.”
Salt Lake residents like Kaden Plewe find ways around their everyday lives to reduce their carbon footprints.
“I recognize our state and the EPA are trying to solve the problems, but I personally think it is our responsibility, the people, to do anything we can to help,” Plewe says. “Some of my favorite ways to help keep our air clean is to carpool, ride my bike to and from school, and keep my thermostat turned down a couple degrees.”
According to UCAIR, some of the best and easiest ways to reduce the carbon footprint include replacing old water heaters, reduce the number of car “cold starts” and checking the smog rating when buying a new car.
Lorange says air purifiers can also help clean the indoor air on orange and red air quality days.