Aug 04, 2016 1:00 AM

Author: Libby Mitchell


Utahns are used to periods of bad air. Every winter the inversion descends upon the valleys, trapping us in a layer of muck that makes breathing difficult and conditions deadly for those with certain medical conditions. While summer may have periods of elevated ozone, wildfires can mimic the kind of bad air conditions of the winter months. “Right now we have the same poor air quality normally associated with the inversion,” says Robert Paine, MD, a pulmonary and critical care physician with University of Utah Health. “That means people who take precautions during those times should be taking precautions now.”

Wildfires release small particulate matter into the air, which can get deep into your lungs or bloodstream when you breathe. This can cause symptoms such as coughing or breathlessness, and may result in decreased respiratory function or heart problems. “The particles that are harmful are those under 2.5 micrometers in size,” says Paine. “These particles are smaller than the diameter of a human hair, and therefore difficult for our respiratory tracts to filter out.”

The bad air affects us all, not only physically, but mentally and psychologically too. However, there are certain groups for whom the air is especially toxic. People with heart disease, asthma, and diabetes, and those with a chronic lung disease, should avoid being outdoors when the air is bad. Pregnant women and children with still developing lungs are also at an increased risk. “When the air is bad we see an increase in the number of heart attacks and emergency room visits for asthma complications,” says Paine. “Those in good health may also be affected with wheezing or coughing.”

The pollution from the wildfires, while having similar impacts of the inversion, is different in many ways. For one thing, it moves. The winds that push the particulates from the fire into an area will also push them out. The winds also make it so conditions are not the same valleywide. While Herriman may be socked in with haze, people in Salt Lake City may be seeing blue skies. “You can track areas where the air is bad using certain apps,” says Paine. “You can also check the conditions on the website of the Utah Department of Environmental Quality.”

There are important ways that we can help with air quality. On air action days try not to drive as much, or take public transportation to reduce emissions. Also, use electric lawn tools rather than those run on gasoline. “It may not seem like much, especially when a large wildfire is causing so much air pollution,” says Paine. “However, every bit helps.”

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