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UCAIR: Working from home helps clear Utah's air

By Jed Boal, KSL TV | Posted - Jan. 12, 2021 at 9:21 p.m.



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SALT LAKE CITY — Pollution on the Wasatch Front is forecasted to be thicker each day this week. However, many Utahns are still working from home, which cuts emissions in the air they breathe.

That's one reason lawmakers are looking at a way to keep some state workers home on bad air days after the pandemic is over.

Driving less has the biggest impact on Wasatch Front air quality. So, in this upcoming legislative session, lawmakers will look at a bill that would keep some workers home when the air is bad.

"At first, it was a little bit challenging for me, because I do have two small children," said Ashley Miller, executive director of Breathe Utah.

But she found the right balance and has become passionate about working from home, or teleworking.

"Very quickly, I began to thrive in that environment because I learned how to manage both," she said.

Miller also noticed a big drop in pollution on the Wasatch Front during the pandemic lockdown last March.

"They were monumental impacts," said Miller.

Spring air in Utah is typically cleaner than the winter air, but pollution from cars is still a problem.

"We saw a huge reduction in the precursor pollution that leads to the formation of PM 2.5 pollution, and also ozone," said Miller.

The most dangerous emissions were essentially cut in half.

According to UDOT, stay-at-home orders and teleworking last spring cut traffic nearly 40% during peak travel times on the Wasatch Front. Atmospheric scientists at the University of Utah discovered the air quality improved immediately after the emissions were reduced on the road.

This winter, a lot of the traffic has returned, and so has the corresponding volume of pollution.

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"If we did bring people home, and more people were off the road, we would see that same kind of decrease emissions now," said Miller.

That's why the state and some Utah companies are exploring ways to continue work from home when the air quality deteriorates, long after the pandemic is over.

Senate Bill 15 would encourage each state agency to keep 40% of employees teleworking on each red air quality day, that's when the air quality is unhealthy on the air quality index. Agencies would be encouraged to keep 70% of employees teleworking on each purple air quality day when the air quality is very unhealthy, and each maroon air quality day when the air is hazardous.

"It's a really great step in that direction of bringing more of our state workforce home off the road," Miller said. She hopes the private sector will take the same kind of steps with their workers.

"What we learned from the pandemic, as well, is it's not just state agencies that can keep their employees home," Miller said. "Private businesses have been very successful in doing that."

The more broadly work from home is applied, the larger the impact on our air quality.

Many workers just don't have that option. But, for workers like Miller and many employees at KSL, working from home enables us to limit our pollution.

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Jed Boal

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