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.
- 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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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
- 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.
- Don't drive on peak inversion days. Carpool, combine trips, use the bus or TRAX instead.
- Review your community's air pollution plans and support state and local efforts to clean up the air.
- Get involved and attend events at University of Utah Health in the fight for clean air.