Breathing this winter could get dirty

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The Oquirrh Mountains as a an inversion blankets the Salt Lake Valley (AP Photo/The Salt Lake Tribune, Steve Griffin)
The Oquirrh Mountains are portrayed here as an inversion blankets the Salt Lake Valley. (Associated Press)

Utah and South Salt Lake Counties rank seventh among American Lung Association’s top 10 most polluted cities by short-term particle pollution. Logan was also ranked at number eight on the same list.

Particle pollution, also known as particulate matter (PM), is a complex mix of tiny solid and liquid particles  in the air we breathe. There are two types of particles, ranging in size from 10 to 25 micrometers in diameter or less — smaller than the width of a human hair. Breathing in particle pollution is dangerous and can lead to death according to the Utah Department of Environmental Quality.

The particles that pollute the air become more dangerous the smaller they are. Particles that are less than 10 micrometers in diameter are directly linked to their potential for causing health problems, according to the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). When these small particles are inhaled, they can work their way into people’s lungs and even their blood streams.

“A majority of the PM is composed of particles that have formed from chemical reactions in the air,” according to the Utah Department of Environmental Quality website. “These particles include organic chemicals and acids, such as nitrates and sulfates.”

Short-term particle pollution occurs during winter temperature inversions when normal atmospheric conditions become inverted, or a dense layer of cold air is trapped under a layer of warm air, according to the website.

Mountains that surround many major Utah cities act like a bowl while the warm layer of air acts like a lid trapping in the cold air and all the pollutants that are produced. Pollution levels increase the longer the inversion lasts.

The Clean Air Act is a federal law created to protect human health and the environment from the effects of air pollution. The act has cut pollution, prevented more than 400,000 premature deaths and millions of cases of respiratory and cardiovascular diseases, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists.

“With the Clean Air Act, we have developed plans and strategies along with federal requirements that have remarkably improved the air quality of the state of Utah,” said Bryce Bird, the director of the Utah Division of Air Quality. “Measured concentration has decreased by 50 percent since the ’80s.”

Despite improved air quality, Utah’s inversion still exceeds federal health standards.

Scientific studies link exposure to particle pollution with a variety of health problems, according to the EPA. Aggravated asthma, decreased lung function and increases of respiratory symptoms are a few of the more common elements that occur during times of inversion when particle pollution levels are high. Scientific research has also linked exposure to particle pollution with premature death in people with heart or lung disease.

“Inhaling particle pollution triggers downstream effects on major organ systems beyond even your heart and lungs,” said Deborah Burney-Sigman, Ph.D. and board president of Breathe Utah, a group of citizens and professionals working to improve Utah’s air quality.

“If your body is in anyway sensitive, it is hazardous in all sorts of ways,” said Burney-Sigman in reference to breathing Utah’s polluted air. “But we shouldn’t imply that only sensitive people are affected. People should take clear measures to protect themselves.”

Particle pollution also negatively affects the state of the environment. Pollutants in the air can cause impaired visibility, environmental and aesthetic damages. The Clean Air Act requires the EPA to set air quality standards to protect the public health; these standards are referred to as the National Ambient Air Quality Standards, which implements sub-standards for carbon monoxide, lead, nitrogen dioxide, ozone, sulfur dioxide and particle pollution.

“Sometimes regulation is the best or only way to make a really big difference on how much pollution we generate,” Burney-Sigman said.

The Utah Division of Air Quality collected PM data from various monitoring stations throughout the state. Since the regulations for air pollution were set by EPA, Utah’s PM levels have dropped. In Provo, the PM levels dropped by 15 percent from 2012-2014, according to the three-year annual 98th percentile average value and violation level report. “Even though air is so much cleaner now there are important things individuals can do to avoid the negative effect that pollution has on a person’s health,” Burney-Sigman said.

“We all breath the same air,” said C. Arden Pope III, a professor of economics at Brigham Young University.

According to Pope, changes in air quality will only come by combined efforts of the community. “We need to be supporting reasonable public policies that will help our air be clean,” he said.

Pope emphasized three areas, that if reduced, will significantly benefit air quality: automotive, industrial and space heating emissions. Keeping automobiles clean, putting restrictions on the “enormous amount of garbage” that industries put into the air and regulating our space heating during inversions are suggestions that Pope says the public should support.

“Most of the time our air quality is quite good,” Pope said, with the exception of winter inversions.

Individuals can stay safe from the harm of breathing in particle polluted air by staying out of it. And for those who want to get outside during times when particle pollution levels are high, Pope advised getting above the inversion by “heading to the mountains.”

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