Three things Utahns can do to help clean the air, protect themselves
By Brooke Adams
The Salt Lake TribuneFirst published Jan 29 2014 01:01AM
When Tiffany Lundeen and Adam Frost moved to Utah four years ago, they were aware of the Wasatch Front’s air pollution.
So before they arrived, the couple chose to be part of the solution rather than add to the problem. They gave up their gasoline-powered vehicles in favor of compressed natural gas (CNG) cars, buying an older Honda Civic and a Chevy Cavalier.
"The kids sometimes complain about how these cars don’t have built-in sliding doors or movie screens," said Lundeen, an instructor at the University of Utah College of Nursing. "All my husband and I have to do ... is remind them that CNG cars do not contribute to the PM problem during the inversion and they instantly change their tune."
Since their arrival, Lundeen and Frost, a U. of U. assistant professor of molecular biology and biochemistry, have tried to be "positive and optimistic and follow all the actions, political and cultural, to fix the problem," Lundeen said.
But they’re pessimistic and are looking to move because of the polluted air.
"I don’t know if there is enough political will to fix it," she said. "It seems like it is years away and my kids are little. We just can’t raise our kids here anymore."
The couple are among a growing number of Utahns who say exposure to wintertime inversions outweighs other benefits of living along the Wasatch Front.
There is no easy way out of this mess, but there are ways to make a difference or protect yourself. Every decision counts.
Here are three things you can do:
Drive smart • Christie Babalis of Park City is among those who tries to do her part. For Babalis, that includes turning off her vehicle if she is stopped for more than 20 or 30 seconds.
"When I see people idling, I politely ask them to consider turning off their cars while they wait," Babalis said in an email. "I usually get yelled at, sworn at or told to mind my own business. ... Well guess what, it’s not that much different than telling people they can’t smoke in a restaurant. We’re in a crisis situation ... Time for drastic measures — by everyone."
According to the Utah Division of Air Quality, vehicles contribute the most air pollution — 57 percent — along the Wasatch Front. That includes both primary fine particulates — from exhaust, brakes, tires and dust — and precursors such as nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds that contribute to secondary formation of PM 2.5, the tiny particulates that are a health hazard.
The kind of vehicle you drive, when you use it and how you drive can make a big difference to Utah’s air quality.
Natural gas, electric and hybrid vehicles may eliminate or greatly reduce tailpipe emissions. The 2014 Chevrolet Spark EV, for example, gets a "10" — the Environmental Protection Agency’s top rating — on its smog scale. A 2014 Toyota Prius Plug-in gets a "9" for smog-related emissions.
But many newer gasoline vehicles are closing the gap, said Glade Sowards, Division of Air Quality environmental scientist. A 2014 Subaru Outback PZEV — partial zero emissions vehicle — gets an EPA "smog score" of "9," the same as the Prius.
In coming years, as federal vehicle emission standards are brought on par with California standards, the differences will narrow even more.
Still, "It would help if a lot of folks shopped for a higher smog rating," Sowards said.
It also would help if Utahns took no-drive days seriously. Most pollutants generated by a vehicle are emitted during so-called cold starts, when the key is turned and the engine is started for the first time each day. Significant emissions also come with each acceleration.
So parking your car on bad air days makes a difference.
A 10 percent reduction in the number of vehicles driven any given winter weekday in Salt Lake County would cut nitrogen oxide emissions by 6.6 percent and volatile organic compound emissions by 9.33 percent, according to a calculation the Air Quality Division did for The Tribune.
Cut the smoke • If Brian Moench had his way, Utah would follow Montreal’s example and phase out all traditional wood-burning fireplaces and wood stoves.
The single most important thing a person can do to affect the air quality is refrain from burning wood, said Moench, president of Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment.
Along the Wasatch Front, wood smoke accounted for 5 percent to 15 percent of the PM 2.5 pollution measured during winter inversions in 2010. It also accounted for 9 percent of the volatile organic compounds and 1 percent of the nitrogen oxides in the air, which combine in the atmosphere to form PM 2.5.
Wood smoke also contains other toxic pollutants: benzene, formaldehyde, acrolein and methane.
Consider this: Burning one wood stove for an hour produces the same amount of PM 2.5 emissions as driving from 525 to 1,150 miles, according to a recent report prepared by researchers at the University of Utah, EPA Region 10 and the Utah Division of Environmental Quality.
And this: Heating your home with a conventional wood stove or a fireplace produces the same amount of PM 2.5 as heating more than 200 homes with natural gas.
Along the Wasatch Front, researchers estimate there are 36,822 wood stoves and fireplaces; 205 wood-burning devices currently are registered with the state as sole heating sources.
Salt Lake City is considering year-round regulation of wood smoke. Rep. Patrice Arent, D-Salt Lake City, is sponsoring a bill that would give the Division of Air Quality better tools to enforce regulations and educate the public about harmful effects of wood smoke; the bill also may include funds to help transition homes that depend on wood-burning for heat to natural gas furnaces.
Don an air mask? • On bad air days, it is best to just stay indoors, especially if you are particularly vulnerable to air pollution. Vulnerable individuals include the elderly, children and people with underlying heart or lung problems.
But the fact is, even those who don’t fall in those categories face long-term health consequences from breathing polluted air.
Filters on home and business furnaces act like big masks that trap particulates, said Denitza Blagev, a pulmonologist and director of the Schmidt Chest Clinic at Intermountain Medical Center. "It’s not the same as having clean air, but it’s better," she said.
If vulnerable people really have to be outside and it’s a particularly heavy day, they can try wearing a mask, she said.
Masks also may be an option for those who want to continue exercising on bad-air days, people who want to be part of the solution by biking to work when the air is bad and even children who walk to school when there’s a health alert, Blagev said.
But all masks are not equal.
To filter out PM 2.5, you should use, at a minimum, an N95 mask — the same mask recommended for use by health organizations during flu and other respiratory disease outbreaks.
An N95 mask traps 95 percent of the particulates in the air. The mask must fit snugly around your mouth and nose and it won’t filter out noxious gases found in Utah’s polluted air, Blagev said.
A 20-pack of N95 one-use masks runs about $15. Reusable, high-tech masks cost twice as much; some, such as Vogmask, offer carbon filters that eliminate some gases, too.
Meghan Smith of West Valley City, who has severe asthma, bought a Vogmask in November after she noticed symptoms worsening during bad air days. She has the "UtahAir" app on her phone and checks it each morning; when pollution levels are "unsafe for sensitive people" Smith dons the mask any time she leaves her house.
"When I wear it, I am less likely to have an attack," she said.
Banks, half of the Lexi and Banks morning duo on Mix 107.9 FM, bought himself, his wife and their now 4-year-old son RZ masks — made for outdoor sports like ATV riding — last year. They have an N99 rating. Banks wears it every day while driving and when he is outside and said he can tell a difference.
"To protect the tool — my voice — I use to make my living, I’m going to do what I’ve got to do," he said. "And that’s wearing a mask."
Wasatch Running Center is among a growing number of recreational businesses in Utah offering air-filtration masks for athletes. This winter, it began offering the I Can Breath! Mask Sport Kit.
Owner Glen Gerner agrees with Blagev that during red-air days it is not advisable to exercise outdoors. But some recreationalists and athletes still do, and the mask provides them with great air flow while filtering out the bad stuff.
"This is the first year we found one we thought was appropriate," Gerner said. "Some people are buying them for running and one person bought one for walking around in this smog because she has respiratory issues."
The bottom line?
"As individualistic as we want to be, we are living in a place where the air is bad," Blagev said. "What you can do personally to protect yourself from the air is minimal. What we need to do is demand cleaner air. It affects everybody."