Features and Occasionals

Breathe: What Lies Ahead

By Ashley Miller

What you should know—and can do—about summertime air pollution.

Spring is here, and mild temperatures and frequent rain showers keep the air along the Wasatch Front relatively clean for a couple of months before summer sets in. We may even forget about what lies ahead: ozone pollution season.

Last summer, the the Wasatch Front experienced some of the worst air pollution we’ve seen in a decade, with the Division of Air Quality reporting the highest number of federal ozone standard

exceedances in that time. Continual record-breaking heat and wildfires throughout the west really hit us hard.

It’s the ozone

Ozone is a gas composed of three atoms of oxygen. It occurs in the upper atmosphere where it’s essential in protecting us from the harmful ultraviolet rays of the sun.

It also occurs at ground level, forming when pollutants like NOx and VOCs emitted by cars, industry and household/consumer products  chemically react with heat and sunlight. Basically, pollutants “bake” together in direct sunlight to form ozone. As the day grows hotter, so does the ozone level. In the air quality world we say “good up high, bad down low.” Ground level ozone is bad news for air quality and health.

Even low levels of ozone in the air we breathe can harm our health, especially on hot sunny days. People within the “sensitive groups” — children, pregnant women, the elderly and people with pre-existing respiratory conditions—are more at risk. Children are especially vulnerable because their lungs are still developing, they are more likely to be active outdoors when ozone levels are high and because children breathe more frequently than adults.

Ozone exposure damages the lining of lung tissue, almost like a sunburn on your skin. It can cause the muscles in the airway to constrict, leading to wheezing and shortness of breath, and a burning sensation, making it harder to take deep breaths. It also causes coughing and  a sore or scratchy throat, and can aggravate lung diseases such as asthma, emphysema, chronic bronchitis and COPD. Emergency room visits due to respiratory conditions increase in the summer during and after elevated ozone levels.

Where does ozone come from?

Many sources of VOCs and NOx are local and manmade, but other sources contribute to the formation of local ozone pollution as well.

Ozone transport, the movement of ozone from one area to another, is the ozone in the air that isn’t from local sources. Utah is affected by ozone that comes from Asia and from wildfires outside the state.

Then there are biogenic VOC sources. Pine trees contribute to ozone formation. This is part of why some places in Southern Utah show elevated ozone even though they are far from the typical manmade sources.

There aren’t many options locally to address ozone transport, though the Division of Air Quality does work with other states to learn how ozone moves from place to place, hopefully resulting in ways to reduce the impact to our air shed. But there are numerous ways to reduce local emissions that contribute to the formation of ozone. And it starts with you.

How to reduce emissions that lead ozone formation

Start with making better choices as a consumer. Most VOCs found at home are usually emitted from consumer products like household cleaning products, fragrances and other aerosols, and building materials such as paints and carpets. Even felt-tip pens are a source of VOCs. The smells coming from new products, like that fresh new car smell or a new shower curtain, are examples of VOCs.

Start with making better choices as a consumer. Look for water-based products, natural carpet fibers like wool or cotton, ceramic tile and low- or no-VOC paints, which are more common and easier to find now than ever. (And consider just giving that old shower curtain a good washing, in lieu of buying a new one.)

Go electric, or go manual! Gas-powered landscaping equipment such as lawn mowers, trimmers and leaf blowers are major sources of the pollutants that lead to the formation of ozone. According to the EPA, a new gas-powered lawn mower produces more VOCs and NOx in one hour of operation than 11 new cars each being driven for one hour. Think of what an old gas-powered mower is emitting.

Consider the time of day. Mow your lawn in the evening when it’s not so hot and the sun is going down. That way all of those emissions won’t react with sunlight to form ozone.

If you must use gas-powered equipment, make sure you have an EPA-certified gas can. These new cans have a better seal, preventing a considerable amount of gas evaporation and spills. The EPA estimates over 17 million gallons of fuel are spilled each year when refueling lawn equipment. That’s more than all of the oil spilled by the Exxon Valdez in the Gulf of Alaska.

Save the firewood for camping…outside of the non-attainment areas!  It may be tempting to have a wood-burning fire pit in the backyard for summer get-togethers. But it’s better for the air, and the health of your family and neighbors, if you don’t.

If you must have a fire, use a gas-fired pit. Burning wood, even in the summertime, leads to increased air pollution. Gas-fired barbeques are also a better choice for air quality than charcoal or wood.

Stay informed!

Check the ozone levels before you recreate or plan to spend extended periods of time outdoors. Health officials recommend exercising early in the morning before the heat of the day sets in, or wait until late evening.

Use the Division of Air Quality’s current conditions tool (air.utah.gov), or the UtahAirApp on your mobile device. Just as you’d check the weather forecast to decide if you need a jacket or umbrella, you can check the air quality forecast to help plan your outdoor activities and keep those lungs healthy.

Ashley Miller, J.D., is the program and policy director for Breathe Utah. She is a member of the state’s Air Quality Policy Advisory Board and is also on the Salt Lake County Health Department Environmental Quality Advisory Commission.

This article was originally published on May 2, 2018.