Canceled college football games? It’s a ‘real concern’ as West’s wildfire seasons get worse

Climate change and air quality concerns could soon push Salt Lake area sports teams to choose between their schedules and the health of their athletes and fans, officials say

(Jaren Wilkey | BYU) The BYU football team prepares to practice at LaVell Edwards Stadium on Aug. 14.

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The mountain backdrop that makes Rio Tinto stadium one of the most beautiful settings in Major League Soccer could hardly be seen Aug. 18, prior to RSL’s game against the Houston Dynamo. Rain clouds had rolled over the Wasatch Front, but the range had already disappeared behind a soupy smog, colored red by the ash it carried from fires 500 miles away in Oregon and California.

Around Salt Lake City, the air smelled like a campfire that had been doused with water. Monitors in the area showed the air quality to be horrendous. Two weeks earlier, Salt Lake City was dealing with the worst air in the world. On the night of RSL’s game, the level of small-particle pollutants in the air was three times worse than the national air quality standard and almost twice that of a bad inversion day.

On the pitch, though, midfielder Albert Rusnák and his RSL teammates took little notice of it. They’ve become accustomed to playing and practicing in air deemed “unhealthy” or worse according to the EPA’s Air Quality Index.

“I can see the smoke, and you can see the mountains kind of in the shadow of the smoke,” said Rusnák, 27, who leads the team in minutes played this season. “But when we’re training, I can’t tell that the air quality is worse than on another day. But I’m sure the people that specialize in this kind of stuff, that are experts, will tell you the air quality is not ideal.”

That’s exactly what they’d say. Then they’d say it’s getting worse every year. And as it does, the mountains won’t be the only things that start disappearing each summer. In the not too distant future, air quality could determine where and when games will be played. It could force relocations or cancellations for everyone from RSL to University of Utah football to a youth soccer team. And if organizations fail to factor air quality into their game plans going forward, athletes, in addition to support staff and fans, will likely pay the price with their health.

(Utah Athletics) Utes quarterback Cameron Rising lofts a ball into the smokey air during a practice on Aug. 10. Four days earlier, Salt Lake City had the worst air in the world and practices had to be moved indoors.

Climate change is “going to get worse and get more serious. So, we need to adapt to it,” said Logan Mitchell, an atmospheric sciences professor at the University of Utah who studies greenhouse gas emissions and air quality. “You’re going to have to figure out ways to monitor air quality and other environmental hazards [like] extreme heat for athletics. And you may have to adjust.

“Games could get canceled. You’re going to have to juggle events and practices getting moved and things like that [with] taking care of your athletes’ health.”

Summertime browns

Air quality has been an issue around Salt Lake City from the start. Even before Utah became a state, Mitchell said, regulations were implemented to curb the amount of pollution that gets trapped against the Wasatch.

Back then, the brown curtain that would drop down on the valley each winter caused most of the concern. Now the winter inversions are getting better, Mitchell said, but the summer smog is worsening.

Increased temperatures and more wildfires caused, experts say, by climate change and forest management issues have subjected Utahns to higher amounts of two types of pollutants: PM2.5 — tiny particles of dust, ash or and other debris that is less than 2.5 microns in size — and ozone.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Smoky skies from wild fires in California, Oregon and Washington, affect the visibility and air quality in Salt Lake City, on Friday, Aug. 6, 2021.

Wildfires from the west are the main contributors to the additional PM2.5 pollutants. As the air moves east, the bigger particles drop out, but the smaller particles stay in the air and pick up additional pollutants from factories and car exhaust en route to Salt Lake City. It’s the same kind of phenomenon that creates the inversion in the winter. The difference is that summer weather patterns mean there’s no escaping it at a higher elevation and that even a rain, like the one that fell during RSL’s 2-1 win over the Dynamo on Aug. 18, won’t necessarily clear it out.

The ozone pollutant, meanwhile, is a summer specialty. It’s formed when the sun creates a chemical reaction with gases and other compounds in the atmosphere. It, therefore, is at its strongest during the hottest parts of the day and drops considerably at night. Unlike PM2.5, it cannot be seen or smelled.

So, what does all that have to do with sports? Quite a lot, actually.

A sunburn on the lungs

As fit as they may be, athletes are a vulnerable population when it comes to suffering the consequences of breathing bad air, according to Dr. Daniel Mendoza, a University of Utah professor of internal medicine in the pulmonary division and an atmospheric sciences professor.

“Most people don’t think of them as such,” Mendoza said, “but they’re the ones that are out there exerting themselves, breathing deeper.”

When the air is unhealthy, athletes not only bring more pollutants into their bodies with big, frequent breaths, they drive them deeper. On game day, that may result in burning lungs, a headache or a cough. Over time, though, the impact can be considerably worse.

Intake of PM2.5 can lead to cardiovascular issues, asthma and even cancer. In some cases, the microscopic pollutants have been found to cross the blood-brain barrier, which can lead to neurological problems. Some of Mendoza’s work at the U of U has been researching whether high pollution days correlate with an increase in suicides.

And yet, Mendoza said he considers the ozone pollution even more dangerous.

“The damage from ozone is pretty permanent,” he said, “and we know exactly what it is.”

The damage from PM2.5 depends on what’s in the particles, how small they are and how deep they penetrate the body. Ozone pollution, meanwhile, creates something similar to a sunburn on the lungs. That scarring, Mendoza said, can hinder the lungs from producing mucus, which helps clear out other pollutants like PM2.5s, viruses and “other nasties.”

If the scarring happens when a person is young — as most athletes are — it will expand as the lungs develop. That can be until a person is in their early 20s, Mendoza said.

“When that damage happens,” he said. “It’ll have a much larger impact on the quality of life of these kids when they become adults.”

The Utah High School Activities Association, which governs high school extracurricular activities in the state, does not have any rules for what to do when the air reaches unhealthy levels. It recommends conferring with state and local health departments, but otherwise defers to each school district to set its own policy.

An informal survey of districts in and around the Salt Lake valley showed most follow EPA guidelines. The EPA recommends moving activities indoors if the AQI — which measures five kinds of pollutants, including ozone and PM2.5 — is greater than 151. Between 100 and 150, it recommends people in sensitive groups reduce activity and that others be monitored for coughing or labored breathing.

Some schools also follow the Utah Department of Health’s Recess Guidance for Schools. It lays out when children should be kept indoors during recess and also closely follows the EPA standards.

Schools in several districts have already had to cancel a few practices or move them indoors this summer because of bad air. The Ogden School District, which follows EPA policy, canceled the football scrimmages for its Ben Lomond and Ogden high schools “out of an abundance of precaution in consideration of air quality,” a spokesperson said

But Mendoza, who is part of the state task force that developed the recess guidelines, said he thinks a protocol should be constructed specifically for athletes. In addition to games, he’d like to see policies for practices, which is when most athletes spend their time outdoors.

“I think that we could do a little bit better,” he said, “but I think it’s better than nothing.”

Level of concern

The University of Utah athletic department also felt it could do better by its athletes.

A week before the university unveiled its new 4,500-seat Ken Garff Red Zone at its football home opener at Rice Eccles Stadium earlier this month, workers discreetly installed two air monitors atop the football team’s training facility.

The university already had two high-caliber monitoring sites on campus and several monitors perched atop Trax trains from which the Utes could draw air quality readings. In addition, athletics staff often check a state monitor located just a few miles away. Yet after Salt Lake City experienced the worst air in the world in August — its 300 AQI was more than double the NCAA’s standard for canceling a game, though only practices were scheduled at the time — that didn’t feel like enough.

“Honestly, with the recent fires from the beginning of our sports season, we wanted to look into our policy a little bit further and just sort of refine it,” said Gavin Gough, the Utes’ associate athletics director for facilities, operations and capital projects. He added, “We just wanted to make sure we had the best data to make decisions as far as canceling competition.”

The monitors, one for ozone and one for PM2.5, were installed atop the Spence and Cleone Eccles Football Center in conjunction with Mitchell and Mendoza and the university’s atmospheric science department. They are still in an experimental stage. Until it knows if readings are true or are being skewed by exhaust from the training center’s kitchen or from traffic on busy 500 South nearby, the athletic department won’t rely on the monitor to make decisions about practices or games. Eventually, though, that’s the plan for the information.

Gough said having the most accurate information possible is critically important given the potential impact on athlete health and also, secondarily, on the department’s finances. Postponing, canceling or relocating a game on short notice can be costly when ticket refunds and TV deals are taken into account.

As Pac-12 commissioner George Kliavkoff said In an interview with Jon Wilner earlier this month, “The ability to predict what the AQI will be in a particular stadium two or three days ahead of time is not perfect.”

NCAA policy indicates “serious consideration should be given to rescheduling” when the AQI is greater than 200. Guidlines for the Pac-12 Conference, to which the Utes belong, recommend moving practice indoors or to a different location when the AQI is between 151 and 200, or “unhealthy for all groups.” Canceling practice becomes an option when the AQI is greater than 200.

The NFL and MLB, like the NCAA, see 200 AQI as the tipping point at which postponement becomes an option. The MLS, according to a 2020 ESPN report, has no formal policy on what should be done when pollution is high. The soccer league did, however, consider postponing the 2019 Western Conference final at LAFC after a fire near Los Angeles raised the AQI levels.

(Utah Athletics) Smoke from western wildfires obscured the Wasatch Mountains as Utah wide receiver Devaughn Vele and the Utes practiced during fall camp.

The Pac-12 Conference is among the sporting groups that have given the most emphasis to pollution policy — which only makes sense given that half of its schools are located in California and Oregon. It has for years been encouraging its schools to frequently monitor their air quality, Gough said. Kliavkoff told Wilner that unhealthy air is “a real concern.”

The conference’s attention to air pollution can be traced back to 2017. That’s when Cal’s football team controversially hosted Washington State on what the San Francisco Chronicle reported was at the time the worst day of PM2.5 pollution ever recorded in the Bay Area, with ash from nearby fires falling on fans prior to kickoff. The very next season, the Big Game between rivals Cal and Stanford was rescheduled because fires in the area caused the air to reach 256, or “very unhealthy” on the AQI scale.

Fires and smoke have been a yearly occurrence ever since. And they will continue to be for the foreseeable future.

“Ultimately we have to be very cognizant of the fact that our wildfires have been getting bigger. They have been lasting longer,” Mendoza said. “And so this is a problem that I don’t think is going away anytime soon. So, really, what we need to do is be as prepared as possible to take care of our athletes. And while we can’t prevent wildfires … we can at least be able to warn the athletes and the coaches that conditions are not favorable and that we should really be focusing on taking care of the athletes.”

That’s not to say that actions can’t also be taken to make the air better. Mitchell said Utah, as a conservative state whose residents care deeply about air quality, has “a unique opportunity” to be a leader in clean energy. And if leaders won’t do it by themselves, he said groups affected by the unhealthy air — including fans and athletes who may begin to see more events canceled or who may be putting their health at risk by participating in them — might be able to sway them.

“Any group in society can advocate for change,” he said, “and especially on a sports team and within a sports team or some other community group.”

Defender Justen Glad just might lead the charge for RSL.

Like his teammate Rusnák, Glad said he hasn’t felt any physical effects from playing in poor air. But that doesn’t mean he’s OK with it.

“I haven’t noticed any crazy difference in the games or anything. I don’t know if that’s just because I’m focused on the game or whatever the case may be,” he said. “But something needs to be done about the pollutants going into the air. I mean, we’re in a world climate crisis, we’ve been in a crisis, and it feels like something should be done. And you almost feel helpless at times because on an individual level you can only do so much. …

“It’s definitely not good.”

Salt Lake Tribune reporter Alex Vejar contributed to this article.