Utah’s (invisible) summertime blues

In Utah’s northern valleys, it’s hard to ignore our air pollution during the winter – our inversions trap small particulate matter (PM2.5) that becomes visible when it builds up, creating that brown, dirty haze over our communities, and cause red air days that keep our children inside during recess.

An example of winter inversion

But when summer rolls around, Utahns often assume the air is clean since they can’t see the pollution like they can in the winter. However, just because we can’t see it doesn’t mean it’s not there (just like calories, gravity, and Santa Claus).

In the summer, Utah suffers from ozone pollution.

Ozone pollution is created by a cocktail of emissions (nitrogen oxides and hydrocarbons) that are produced by things like our cars, buildings, and industrial sources. This pollution spikes during the summer because it’s formation is directly tied to the presence of sunlight: the more the sun is out, the worse the ozone pollution. Ozone forms throughout the day, peaking in the afternoon between 4 PM – 7 PM. As the sun sets and it cools down overnight, that ozone breaks up until the sun rises again the next day.

Our policy associate, Jessica Reimer, talks about ozone during a community yoga event

While PM2.5 sits at a lower elevation (in the winter you can literally break through the blanket of pollution by retreating to the mountains), ozone concentrates at higher elevations. Unfortunately, no matter where you live you are at risk of exposure to air pollution!

Our northern valleys, especially, suffer from ozone in 2018, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced that seven counties in Utah exceeded federal limits for ozone pollution. Most of those are along the Wasatch Front, but the Uintah Basin has also been flagged due to emissions from oil and gas development.

For the state, this means that it has three years to clean up its act (to get “back in attainment”). That’s great – but what does this mean for us?

Bad for our health
Like all pollutants, ozone pollution isn’t good news for our health. Exposure to ozone can aggravate asthma, lung diseases, and heart problems, and can even cause permanent damage. Breathing in ozone has been described as “sunburn on the lungs” (and, as far as we know, there is no aloe vera equivalent for lung relief!). The very young, elderly, and those with pre-existing health problems are the most vulnerable to ozone.

HEAL staff showing us how they HEAL Utah by biking to work

Summertime fun – but time it right!
Good news is that you don’t have to lock yourself inside all summer unless you want to. But you should plan your summertime activities around ozone spikes. Since ozone is tied to light exposure (more light = higher ozone pollution), you should plan your activities during the cooler parts of the day (morning and evenings) to avoid peak exposure to ozone. Stay out of that afternoon heat and ozone by taking a siesta and come back out when the temperature has cooled.

What can I do?
By changing some simple daily habits, you can help push us towards clean air:

C: Carpool whenever possible
L: Limit car starts and combine trips
E: Engage in clean air advocacy (go to www.healutah.org for ideas and opportunities!)
A: Access public transportation
N: Navigate smog ratings and engine types
A: Avoid unnecessary commutes
I: Idle less or not at all
R: Ride a bike or walk
HEAL staff & partners at SEEK work to find solutions for our air problems, like ozone!