By Donna Kemp Spangler
Many people have said to me this summer, “It seems like we’ve had a lot of unhealthy air days.” Turns out, it’s true. Utah is experiencing the worst air pollution, particularly ozone, in a decade. Record heat and massive wildfires have taken their toll on Utah’s air. As a result, the Department of Environmental Quality’s Division of Air Quality (DAQ) is seeing some of the highest number of exceedances of the federal ozone standard in the last ten years.
DAQ monitors and records the federal ozone standard, set at 70 parts per billion (ppb), over an eight-hour period. When that standard is violated on any given day, it is recorded as an “exceedance.” As of Labor Day 2017, Salt Lake County has had more non-compliance days (22) since 2007 (40). Davis County has nearly set its record of 15, last seen in 2008. Only Utah County has seen a slight decline in ozone this year.
Ozone occurs as a chemical reaction between oxides of nitrogen and volatile organic compounds – emissions largely from motor vehicles, but also consumer products, gasoline-powered lawn equipment, and industrial sources. During the summer, these chemicals react with sunlight to create ozone, and as temperatures change throughout the day, so do the levels of ozone. Subtle changes can move the ozone needle either above or below the healthy mark. Ozone can be harmful to sensitive populations, such as individuals with lung disease or asthma, children and older adults. On days when the ozone is higher than the federal standard, sensitive groups are cautioned to reduce prolonged or heavy outdoor exertion. But on occasion, the levels are so unhealthy, everyone should heed the warnings.
If there is a silver lining to this bad year, the trends show that the air is improving, thanks to several notable steps, including:
- Encouraging refineries to produce cleaner “Tier 3”
- Enacting 30 new rules that reduce emissions from the “area sources” that contribute 39 percent of our air pollution. As an example, one of those regulations requires that consumer products sold in Utah be formulated to reduce air-polluting components. This step will remove 2,000 tons of pollutants from our air annually.
- Urging the public to drive less or use public transit.
The tricky thing about ozone is it’s invisible. You can’t judge the air quality just by how it looks. Just because it looks hazy, doesn’t necessarily mean the air quality conditions are unhealthy. That’s why it’s important to check the quality of air each day by going to DAQ’s web page. You can learn more about what you can do to protect your health and improve Utah’s air by visiting UCAIR or Utah Clean Air Partnership.
As bad as it’s been, relief is in sight. Cooler temps can give us a respite before the upcoming winter inversion season hits. In the meantime, don’t take air quality for granted. On a clear and healthy day, share a picture on Instagram, and tag DEQ.
I am the Communications Director for DEQ and a former reporter for the Deseret News. I am a frequent blog contributor. You can read my previous blog posts at deq.utah.gov/news. You can follow me on Twitter @deqdonna