Commentary: With summer ozone, air quality is a year-round issue in Utah

Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune Utah is currently experiencing the worst summer air quality in nearly ten years, largely due to a persistent high pressure system that has parked over the Wasatch Front. The summer equivalent of an inversion is not as obvious to spot but the high ozone levels are there none the less.

As the calendar ticks over from May to June, kids hide their book bags under their beds and we start planning dinners and parties at parks and picnic tables. Air quality also moves to the back of our minds.

The winter inversion season is over, so we don’t have to think about what is going on with our air quality while we enjoy all the warm weather activities with our family and friends, right?

Wrong! Utah has a summer time air quality problem that is just as harmful as our wintertime inversions called ozone. In fact, because we can’t see it, feel it, or taste it, like inversions, ozone can be even more dangerous. But before you panic, there are things that we can all do.

First, what is ozone? Summer-time ozone is formed by emissions that chemically react with sunlight. These chemicals are nitrogen oxide (NOx) and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) — emissions largely from motor vehicles, but also consumer products, gasoline-powered lawn equipment and industrial sources. During the hot summer days, the sunlight bakes these chemicals together to create ozone and, as the days get warmer, or even as it gets warmer during the day, the level of ozone changes. Discreet changes can move the ozone needle either above or below the healthy mark.

A typical hot summer day when the air is stagnant can be the perfect recipe for ozone, when all the emissions from the day have been cooked together by the hot sun to make the afternoon difficult or even dangerous place for your lungs. Long-term exposure to ozone can be like a sunburn on the lungs. Short term means difficulty in breathing.

Now that you know about the problem, there are things that you can do to help.

In our efforts to clear the air there are no perfect answers, but there are practical solutions. The first thing you can do is limit or eliminate your own emissions, especially those NOx and VOCs that are precursors to ozone. Our largest personal emission source is our automobiles. We recommend reducing our mobile emissions by taking transit, carpooling, reducing the number of cold-starts your car has and trip chaining. Because the weather is nice out, you should look for opportunities to walk, ride a scooter or join Bike Utah in biking all over the state.

At home, you can open your windows and use fans while turning off your air conditioning – this will limit the amount of emissions your home produces. Also, look to purchase electric lawn equipment, or upgrade your gas can to an EPA approved gas can. This spring, with the help of Boeing, Union Pacific and the Eccles Foundation, the Utah Clean Air Partnership (UCAIR) swapped out 1,000 old gas cans for the zero-emissions EPA approved ones. The emissions saved from these gas cans is the equivalent of taking 108 cars off the road every day for five years.

Finally, to keep your lungs safe, do your exercising and heavy outdoor work in the morning and late afternoon to avoid the afternoon ozone haze. Download the UtahAir app from the Utah Department of Environmental Quality. This app will give you daily forecasts, allowing you to monitor and understand what is going on in your area.

For us to be successful, we all must work together. Find something that you can do today and, by working together, we will make the air cleaner.

Thom Carter

Thom Carter is executive director of the Utah Clean Air Partnership.