December 4, 2019

In winter, Salt Lake County’s geography and weather combine to trap a layer of cold, polluted air below a lid of warm air. This reversal of normal weather patterns is known as an inversion, and can seriously threaten our health. The longer the inversion, the more the pollutants from industries, businesses, homes, and vehicles accumulate.

The Air Facts

  • Particulate matter—PM2.5—is the culprit in respiratory irritation during inversions. The 2.5 refers to the particles’ size in micrometers, fine enough to infiltrate our lungs.
  • Air quality along the Wasatch Front exceeds federal health safety levels several times during winter months. Utah’s Division of Air Quality reported that last winter Salt Lake County experienced 22 days in which pollution levels exceeded federal air quality standards.
  • Poor air quality is especially hard on people with health conditions, such as heart or lung disease, as well as on children, infants, and the elderly.

Local Consequences

  • Hospitalization rates for Utah residents who suffer from asthma are higher in areas where air quality is poorest.
  • An estimated 59,000 children in the state suffer from asthma, according to the Utah Department of Health.
  • Utah Physicians for Healthy Environment (UPHE) maintains that unhealthy air kills as many as 2,000 people along the Wasatch Front each year, and shaves two years off a person’s life.
  • UPHE notes that studies have linked poor air quality to pneumonia, lung cancer, bronchitis, increased hospital visits, and absences from school or work due to health issues.

Protect Your Family—and Yourself

Robert Paine III, MD, chief of pulmonary and critical care medicine, spearheads the University of Utah Program for Air Quality, Health, and Society and encourages everyone to get involved in the fight for cleaner air. Paine urges us to question how we contribute to air pollution, and how we can decrease our contribution and improve air quality. He offers these suggestions for safeguarding the health of ourselves and loved ones:

  1. Check air quality levels every day this winter, especially when the sky is foggy or hazy. Sources include local radio and TV and weather reports.
  2. Avoid exercising outdoors on days when the inversion is at its worst. Exercising causes you to breathe more deeply, and you don’t want to breathe in pollution. Work out indoors at home, a recreation center or a gym, or walk inside a mall.
  3. Limit your children’s outdoor playtime when pollution levels are high. Most schools have an indoor recess program designed for such days per the guidance of the Utah Department of Health.

Work Toward a Solution

  1. Limit fireplace use. A University of Utah study shows that burning wood emits thousands of times more particulate matter than natural gas and contributes to inversions.
  2. Don’t drive on peak inversion days. Carpool, combine trips, use the bus or TRAX instead.
  3. Review your community’s air pollution plans and support state and local efforts to clean up the air.
  4. Get involved and attend events at University of Utah Health in the fight for clean air.

This article was posted by the University of Utah Health Care department.

Most of us know that red is bad and green is good when it comes to air quality. But what does the color of the day tell us about how we should alter our behavior? If it’s, say, an orange day, what should we do differently to safeguard our health?

Depends on the individual, says Robert Paine, MD, His recommendations for each color are as follows:

Green: Air quality is satisfactory and pollution poses little to no risk.

Yellow: Air quality is acceptable but may pose a risk to people who have active problems with conditions such as heart disease, asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), chronic bronchitis, emphysema and cystic fibrosis. If you’re at risk, limit outdoor exercise and time spent outdoors, and be sure to use medications meticulously. Call your health care provider if symptoms increase.

Orange: Air quality is unhealthy for sensitive groups, including small children, older people, pregnant women and individuals with lung disease or heart disease. If you’re at risk, avoid outdoor exercise and limit time outdoors, use medications meticulously, and call your health care provider if symptoms increase.

Red: Air quality is unhealthy for everyone, especially sensitive groups. Avoid exercising outside and limit children’s outdoor playtime (recess should be indoors at this level of pollution). Sensitive groups need to be especially vigilant.

Check current conditions here

Tips to improve air quality