'It's that simple': Expert says this 1 action can help air quality during Utah inversions

An inversion begins to fill the Salt Lake Valley on Nov. 29, 2021. With another inversion building this week, experts say "simple" steps can be taken to reduce pollution during an inversion.

An inversion begins to fill the Salt Lake Valley on Nov. 29, 2021. With another inversion building this week, experts say "simple" steps can be taken to reduce pollution during an inversion. (Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News)

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SALT LAKE CITY — Rose Kjesbo has seen firsthand what recess, structured play and outdoor time mean for her students at Indian Hills Elementary School in Salt Lake City's east bench.

"Students are able to get that exercise they need, and they get it three times a day. It really helps them to come back into the classroom and be refocused," she said. "That brain break they get from the movement has been shown and proven in so many studies that it's so important for students' and children's brain development."

But when air quality dips to unhealthy levels during winter inversions, it impacts the ability to have those moments.

Under a Utah guideline, children with sensitive lungs shouldn't be allowed outside for recess when the Air Quality Index reaches 100. All children shouldn't be allowed outside for recess when it exceeds 150 because of the unhealthy exposure to pollution. Both of those thresholds aren't uncommon during inversions.

And without a proper recess, Kjesbo said they become less effective learners.

She's found some ways to handle the issue over the past few years. For instance, recess is held indoors, where her students can dance or practice yoga. If poor air quality impacts multiple days, students may end up spending more time walking in the hallways just to get the exercise they'd get outside.

Those days are typically met with groans because students would rather play outside. However, it also impacts teachers. Kjesbo said these days reduce breaks and time needed to plan out the next learning activity for the remaining time in class.

Kim Frost, the executive director of the Utah Clean Air Partnership, or UCAIR, says this is just one example of how winter inversions have negative impacts on Utahns.

"No matter who you are or what you do, everyone is connected because we all breathe the same air to live," she said, during a virtual panel meeting Tuesday about air quality.

Utah's winter inversions — which impact the Wasatch Front, northern and eastern Utah the most — are unavoidable. They're a result of warmer air forming atop colder air, essentially placing an invisible lid over a valley that traps pollution in the air many Utahns breathe. Natural forces and landscape features also make it difficult for pollution to clear out, the Utah Division of Air Quality notes.

UCAIR researchers discovered through analysis that air pollution doubles daily once an inversion sets up, such as one that began this week. It can only clear out when there's a shift in the weather, usually when a cold front sweeps through an affected region.

Utah is best experienced when we can see the landscapes — when we can play outside and we can breathe clean air. It's up to all of us to make it happen.

–Jake Miller, Utah Golf Association

The only way to avoid the poor air quality days is to reduce pollution emissions, which is something that's been increasingly difficult as more people move to Utah and to the Wasatch Front, especially. While newer technologies have helped limit individual pollution, vehicles and buildings are still major contributors to the haze and higher Air Quality Index numbers that build during an inversion.

It's why UCAIR recently launched a new campaign called "Live to Breathe." The public service announcement campaign aims to remind Utahns that poor air quality affects many normal recreational activities, jobs and lifestyles — such as children playing outside during recess.

Frost says even one or two "simple changes" can make a dramatic difference during every inversion.

  • Avoid cold starts. The emissions produced in the first 30 seconds of starting a cold vehicle is about the same as a newer vehicle traveling 300 miles. One way to avoid this is to combine errands together so every trip doesn't involve a cold start.
  • Reduce idling. Ten seconds of idling consumes more gas than restarting an engine.
  • Skip a trip. If possible, work remotely from home or stay at home to eat. During "mandatory action" days, many state employees are even required to work from home for this reason.
  • Carpool or take public transit. Both options reduce the number of vehicles on roadways and thus the amount of pollution in the air.
  • Go electric. Electric vehicles are an emerging trend, but replacing a gas snowblower with an electric model also helps significantly.
  • Lower your thermostat. Even one degree makes a difference
  • Switch any remaining wood stoves and fireplaces to another source of energy. Wood fireplaces and stoves aren't allowed to be used during "mandatory action" days unless approved by the state, anyway.

Of those, Frost said avoiding idling is the simplest solution to start with.

"It makes such a huge impact. There are so many idling cars," she said. "I think we've all gotten in the habit during COVID of drive-thru and picking up our food or drinks. If every single person could turn off their car when they're in that line or when they're picking up their kids from school, it would have such a huge impact. It's an easy action to take and doesn't change any behaviors. ... It's that simple."

These same tips can also be applied during the summer when there are issues with the ozone, added Jake Miller, the executive director of the Utah Golf Association. He points out that golfers — and really anyone recreating outdoors in Utah — are negatively impacted every summer as a result of ozone issues, which are the result of pollution and heat.

It's an issue not just limited to the Wasatch Front or other inversion-impacted regions of the state.

The Environmental Protection Agency points out that "bad ozone" is linked to the development and aggravation of asthma, as well as deaths from respiratory causes. Children, older individuals and people active outdoors, especially workers, are impacted the most.

The way ozone is handled is no different than during an inversion. In Miller's case, Utah's ozone situation forces employees at golf courses across the state to limit time outdoors during the summer because of the health concerns, Miller said.

Whether it's a winter inversion or summertime ozone, he says Utahns can work together to help reduce air quality threats.

"Utah is best experienced when we can see the landscapes — when we can play outside and we can breathe clean air," he said. "It's up to all of us to make it happen."

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Carter Williams is a reporter who covers general news, local government, outdoors, history and sports for KSL.com.


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