May 08, 2014 11:00 AM

Author: Office of Public Affairs

When it comes to air quality, Salt Lake needs to go to summer school. The county earned an “F” grade in the American Lung Association’s latest “State of the Air” report analyzing air quality nationwide.

The American Lung Association says this places many people at higher risk for added health problems, including more than 67,000 adults and almost 22,000 kids in Salt Lake County who have asthma. Other people who face higher risk include those who have another chronic lung disease, such as COPD, or who have cardiovascular disease or diabetes. Children and teens, whose lungs are still developing, and seniors, whose bodies are more susceptible to dirty air, are also at increased risk.

The report evaluated two kinds of pollutants in Utah’s air. Particulate matter is made up of dust and soot particles one-seventh the width of a strand of human hair or less. In Utah, especially during winter, a big cause of particulate matter pollution is people burning wood in fireplaces or stoves, says Kerry E. Kelly, a research associate with the University of Utah Department of Chemical Engineering and an associate director of the University of Utah Program for Air Quality, Health, and Society.

Yearlong Problem

“Our air quality tends to be poor in the wintertime,” Kelly says. “Research recently revealed that new EPA guidance suggests that wood-burning has a disproportionate effect on air quality.” People who heat their homes with wood-burning stoves are responsible for releasing up to 300 times as much fine particulate matter as those who use natural gas, she says.

In summer, ozone is a concern. Although we need the ozone layer in the stratosphere to protect us from the sun’s ultraviolet rays, breathing it is another story.

“Ozone at ground level, where it can be inhaled, is a pollutant, and is known to have harmful effects in both humans and plants,” according to the Utah Department of Environmental Quality’s website. Unlike particulate matter, ozone tends to increase in warmer weather. “The highest ozone levels occur during the summer when strong sunlight, high temperatures, and stagnant meteorological conditions combine to drive the chemical reactions and trap the air in the region for several days,” the website says.

Breathe Easier

When inhaled, ozone can cause coughing, lung and throat irritation, and wheezing and breathing difficulty for anyone, not just those with health conditions, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says.

Ozone levels vary throughout the day, Kelly says, so it’s possible to avoid the highest levels by being strategic about your summer outdoor activities. “If you’re going to get outside and exercise, do that earlier in the morning … before ozone levels start to rise around 11 as the sun gets stronger,” she advises.

Avoiding these harmful substances helps, but keeping pollutants out of the air in the first place is a better long-term solution. “The Clean Air Act has helped us come a long way,” American Lung Association assistant vice president Janice Nolen tells USA Today. “We have to keep pushing because we know cleaning up the air has an impact on human health.”

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