Utah's air pollution alerts are getting overhauled in a way that based on history would rarely result in red alerts that now warn people the air is unhealthy.
The idea behind the changes, officials said Monday, is to give Utahns vital news they can use for protecting their health and taking action to reduce pollution buildups.
But some health-advocacy groups worry that the changes will be confusing and lead to complacency rather than more preventive action.
"It's hard to make sense of [pollution conditions] even for people like me," said Brian Moench, co-founder of Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment, who called the new approach "misleading."
"It's confusing, and confusion doesn't help anyone."
In a nutshell, the new system scraps the old red-yellow-green scheme that has been in place for more than a decade. Instead, the new warning system:
• Focuses on restricting use of solid-fuel stoves and other actions intended to minimize air-quality impacts with "voluntary" and "mandatory" action days, when wood-burning would be illegal in all of Salt Lake and Davis counties and parts of Utah, Weber, Cache, Box Elder and Tooele counties.
• Adopts the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Air-Quality Index, a six-color warning system that triggers a "red" alert only when daily particulate-pollution levels reach concentrations of 55. 5 micrograms of PM 2.5 pollution per cubic meter of air. Under the current warning system, a "red" advisory is triggered when pollution approaches 35.4 micrograms. At around that concentration, pollution levels are considered a health threat, according to federal regulation.
As Bryce Bird, director of the Utah Air Quality Division, put it: "Tomorrow's orange is yesterday's red."
• Urges people to check the pollution levels for their area online rather than judging air quality by the view outside their windows, where fog is often confused with pollution. Hourly readings, county by county, are available on the state's Web page.
"You can't always trust your eyes," said Bird, who noted that the old alert system, coupled with pollution controls and lower vehicle emissions, has been enormously successful in reducing particulate pollution in the past few decades.
Based on the new system, the pollution monitor at Hawthorne Elementary in Salt Lake City would not have had any "red" days last winter even though under the old system there were two mandatory "no-burn" days. The Hawthorne monitor tends to have higher readings for winter pollution than other monitors.
Utah Department of Environmental Quality Director Amanda Smith and air-quality division officials pointed out that, under the new system, industry and the public will be called on to take action sooner than before, and that is expected to lower pollution. For example, the same pollution and weather conditions would have triggered 15 mandatory "no burn" days last winter rather than the two that were declared.
"It's really difficult to communicate," said Smith, noting that it's important to educate people about the ways they can impact their neighbor's air quality by, say, warming up a diesel engine or using a wood-burning fireplace.
Smith added that the new system is "trying to separate those two messages," one on health and one on what individuals can do to avoid adding pollution to the air.
Cherise Udell, co-founder of Utah Moms for Clean Air, shared Moench's view that the new system will be confusing and misleading for people who have become accustomed to the old green-yellow-red alerts.
"It sounds like this will muddy the water in terms of helping people make decisions about their day, what actions they should take in terms of protecting their families," Udell said, adding that it appears to underplay the harm caused by even low levels of pollution.
Seeing fewer "red" warnings, she said, "creates public apathy because it doesn't seem like the problem is grave."
Mark Clemens, manager for the Utah Chapter of the Sierra Club, said he makes a habit of checking the state's air-quality Web page every day. It will be important, he added, for the state's air-quality office to step up its outreach to make it easy for people to see pollution levels.
"It's incumbent on the Division of Air Quality to push out the data through all the channels and the media for mass communication," he said.
Marty Carpenter, spokesman for the Salt Lake Chamber of Commerce and former communications director for the Gov. Gary Herbert campaign, said his organization welcomes the idea that Utah will be using the same pollution-warning system currently in use nationwide. He said it will put northern Utah on a level playing field with other places keen on attracting new business.
"Our ultimate goal is clean air," he said. "And if this helps us understand our air better and improves it, that's a step in the right direction."