Inversion season has hit Utah and hit hard. With several days of “red” air quality, the Wasatch Front is off to a tough air quality season. Our fishbowl geography, with the Oquirrh Mountains to the west and the Wasatch Mountains to the east, puts us at risk for inverted temperatures (cold air closer to the ground and warmer air above), trapping air pollution in our living, breathing atmosphere.
Pollution from cars and trucks contribute the majority of pollutants in our air, which is why you see public health messages to use public transportation and carpools, to combine trips when out running errands, and work from home when possible.
It’s important for all of us to do our part to not worsen air quality. Additionally, we can all take steps to protect ourselves and our loved ones from exposure—particularly prolonged exposure—to air pollution, as it can adversely affect health.
People with airway diseases like asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and those with a history of heart disease or stroke are most vulnerable to the adverse health effects of air pollution. Children also represent a higher risk population. They breathe faster, inhaling more pollution, and tend to spend more time outside, increasing their exposure to poor air.
So how do you know when the air quality is bad? Those with smartphones should download the airnow.gov app. Air quality monitors around the state provide real-time information on air quality throughout the year.
The app reports the AQI, or Air Quality Index. This is a calculated figure that incorporates many different pollutants. When the AQI is less than 50, air quality is considered good (green). Between 50 and 100, air quality is moderate (yellow). 101 to 150 is considered unhealthy for sensitive groups (orange), and greater than 150 is unhealthy for all (red). The AQI goes up from there. The airnow.gov app also provides color-coded guidance on minimizing exposure to air pollution based on the AQI.
What about healthy people—are they at risk? The answer is yes. Prolonged, repeated exposure to air pollution not only worsens asthma, but can even cause it. Pregnant women who are exposed to higher levels of air pollution are more likely to have a child with asthma, among other pregnancy complications.
People who enjoy outdoor exercise should also take care. Exercise earlier in the day, or at a higher altitude above the inversion. Runners and bikers should deliberately avoid exercise during peak commuting time, as tailpipe emissions are at their highest. Red air quality days are good days to choose indoor exercise.
We all have a responsibility to our environment and to ourselves and our loved ones to both mitigate our contributions to air pollution and avoid exposure to air pollution when possible. Doing so keeps us healthy now and helps to protect future generations.