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Revamped Utah air quality index debuts this winter

Published November 4, 2013 10:07 am

Environment • New systems by The Salt Lake Tribune and state will convey more information about the air and what actions to take.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

The Salt Lake Tribune has reformatted its daily wintertime air-quality graphic to more closely align it with the Utah Division of Air Quality's overhauled system. Gone is the simple three-color semaphore; a more complicated system will convey a two-pronged message with more information and nuance.

The graphic pairs the quality of the air over Salt Lake and Davis counties against the level of action state regulators want residents to take to prevent air pollution from reaching unhealthy levels.

Fine particulate matter, or PM2.5, is a chronic public health problem every winter along the Wasatch Front when weather patterns and topography trap pollution near the ground between storms.

Beginning this winter, the state Division of Air Quality will not wait until PM2.5 levels breach federal thresholds, set at 35.5 micrograms per cubic meter of air, to issue calls for voluntary or mandatory actions, such as prohibitions on wood burning.

"We had to decouple the messages," said Donna Spangler, spokeswoman with the division. "If we are building an inversion and we're at 20 [micrograms] but we know we'll hit 35 in the next 24 hours, we can say you need to stop burning now."

State air-quality officials will use weather forecasts to help them decide when to call for voluntary and mandatory steps.

"Once the storm goes away, that's when the inversion starts building," Spangler said. "This is the time you consolidate trips and travel smarter even though the air is OK because it's only going to get worse."

Violations of the wood-burning ban can result in a fine up to $299. The public is encouraged to report violations to the division.

On Monday, a free smart phone app that delivers real-time air-quality information will be released to the public, available from Apple and Android phones. "Utah Air" was developed by Weber State University's National Center for Automotive Science and Technology and can be used on iPhones and Androids.

The app lets users know when not to use fireplaces or stoves that burn solid fuel, the best times to exercise outdoors, or when to consolidate errands based on current conditions and trends, according to the center's director, Joe Thomas.

A three-day forecast can help individuals plan ahead to adjust their travel plans or work schedule to avoid adding harmful emissions during winter inversions.

"There are opportunities every day to help improve air quality in Utah," said Bryce Bird, Division of Air Quality director. "While we can't control the weather, with a little help from everyone we can reduce how much pollution we're breathing during an inversion."

Salt Lake and the Cache Valley have some of the worst particulate pollution in the nation and the division next month will finalize a required plan to get the airshed into compliance with federal guidelines for PM2.5 by 2019.

Tailpipe emissions account for about half this pollution, which is defined as particles less than 2.5 microns in diameter. These particles are so tiny they can penetrate sensitive tissues in the pulmonary system and trigger acute medical events, such as heart attacks and asthma, or even cause cancer in the long term.

Friday's particulate pollution weighed in at less than 8 micrograms, a fairly benign level compared with what's in store when inversion season starts around mid-December.

The Tribune air-quality graphic will be displayed across the masthead of the Utah section every day during inversion season except Mondays, when it will appear on top of the front page.

It provides a health alert in a four-part color-coded scheme, with "good" in green (PM2.5 levels less than 12 micrograms), "moderate" in yellow (12 to 35.4 micrograms), and "unhealthy for sensitive groups" in orange (35.5 to 55.4 micrograms). Sensitive groups include people with asthma or other health conditions, children and older adults, and those who are active outdoors.

This is a simplified version of the state's six-category system, which breaks "unhealthy" into three categories that include "very unhealthy" and "hazardous." The Tribune graphic lumps all three as "unhealthy" in red, which is declared when particulate pollution reaches 55.5 micrograms.

The action alerts are displayed as shapes. A circle means no actions are required; the inverted triangle (think yield sign) signifies voluntary actions; and the X means mandatory actions.

bmaffly@sltrib.com. —

What you can do to help fix the air

Combine trips

Avoid idling

Carpool

Use mass transit

Avoid using spray products