Busting 7 Common Air Quality Myths

This is an archived article and the information in the article may be outdated. Please look at the time stamp on the story to see when it was last updated.

star-sponsored-native The following is sponsored by the Utah Department of Environmental Quality.

For many, Utah winter represents a one-of-a-kind outdoor playground experience. Fresh mountain powder, neighborhood sledding and gorgeous crisp winter mornings are often marred by waking up to a settling blanket of inversion smog. And there is always a great deal of public and private discussion centered on Utah’s air quality, even as residents seek credible information about what individuals and families can do to improve the air we breathe.

With all the talk, separating the fact from the fiction can seem daunting. Fortunately, we’ve addressed several of the most widely-circulated myths from the air quality conversational mix and busted open the facts for you.

Busting 7 Common Air Quality Myths

  • Myth: Refineries and other industrial sources are the biggest air polluters along the Wasatch Front.
    • Fact: Point sources, which include refineries and large industrial facilities, represent about 13 percent of total emissions along the Wasatch Front. Of that 13 percent, 3 percent comes from Utah refineries and about 10 percent from the remaining industrial source points. By far the largest source of emission pollution is from vehicles, which represent 48 percent or roughly half of total emissions along the Wasatch Front. These facts make decisions to use mass transit, trip chain, carpool, walk and bike an excellent way to reduce inversion pollutants. Taking alternative transportation becomes increasingly important during an inversion as the amount of pollution in our air doubles every day during these periods.
  • Myth: Turning your car off and then restarting it releases more emissions than idling while in line at the bank or fast food restaurant.
    • Fact: The DAQ research team recommends this rule of thumb: if you need to put your car in park, turn it off. And remember, never idle while waiting for a child after school. Not only does that contribute to overall poor air quality, but the proximity and height of the exhaust pipes to the young children who pass by sets up a senseless respiratory risk. Children breathe air in to their lungs much more rapidly than adults and are most vulnerable to pollutants from vehicle exhaust. Show your kids you care when you wait for them by parking the car, turning off the engine, and waiting with a blanket.
  • Myth: There’s not much any one person can do about air quality – it’s just the nature of living in a bowl-like valley, and we just need to learn to live with it.
    • Fact: It’s true that our unique topography and weather play a big role in our pollution problems along the Wasatch Front. Yet there are many things you and your family can do to make a difference when it comes to the air we breathe.
      • Drive your newest car. Newer, well-tuned cars reduce air pollution dramatically. Also switching from a vehicle with a smog rating of 5 to a vehicle with a smog rating of 8 will reduce your vehicle emissions by 80 percent.
      • About 90 percent of volatile organic compounds (VOC) emissions and 60 percent of Nitrogen Oxide (NOx) emissions occur in the first 50 seconds of vehicle operation after a cold start. You can make a dramatic reduction in emissions by chaining trips together to avoid multiple cold starts throughout the day.
      • Plan to use a no-emission snow shovel instead of a snow blower.
      • Replacing your old water heater with an ultra-low NOx water heater can reduce NOx emissions by 75 percent.
      • Lower your thermostat. By joining with other Utahns in lowering your thermostat just two degrees, you can help make a big difference in improving Utah’s air. Not only that, every time you lower your thermostat a degree you will save one percent on heating costs per month (see calculations here).
  • Myth: Lighting a fire in the fireplace now and then really isn’t a big deal, when it comes to pollution.
    • Fact: Wood burning creates microscopic pieces of pollution that can enter your bloodstream and can cause health effects like coughing, headache, eye and throat irritation, asthma attacks, heart problems and more. Most pollution created from wood burning doesn’t go away. The tiny particulates created in wood smoke are so small that even doors and windows cannot keep them out. In fact, up to 70 percent of the wood smoke that exits a chimney actually re-enters nearby homes. It’s not unheard of for people to suffer severe breathing difficulties just because their neighbors regularly use a wood fireplace. When the air quality in Utah is the red or mandatory action zone, wood fires are against the law, with the only exception being households that use wood-burning stoves or fireplaces as their sole source of heat.
  • Myth: Wearing a surgical mask will help reduce our intake of particulate matter pollution.
    • Fact: Particulate matter (PM) refers to very small dust and soot particles. PM2.5 is the term used for particulate matter that is 2.5 micrometers or smaller in size and is about 1/20th the width of a human hair. Sources of PM2.5 include fuel combustion from vehicles, power plants, wood burning and industrial processes. Such masks would do little to protect against their inhalation, but probably about the same good as a scarf. However, a scarf would provide the added benefit of a nice warm buffer between your lungs and the cold air, while making you look less scary to kids riding TRAX.
  • Myth: When air quality is poor outdoors, it is also bad inside.
    • Fact: Bad particles found in Utah’s air dissolve when heated up, which is why red air days typically only occur in the colder months, and it is part of the reason the air inside is always safer. A study done in 2013 by Utah State University found that, on average, the inside air consistently contains about 25 percent of the particle pollution that’s measured outside. That percentage can vary based on the presence and type of air filters, air scrubbers or UV lights in use.
  • Myth: There is no definitive, official source of information for daily air quality levels.
    • Fact: Air quality conditions are monitored at various sites throughout the state by the Utah Division of Air Quality (DAQ), every hour of every day. To check the current PM2.5 levels in your area, visit air.utah.gov and click on “current conditions,” or download the free Utah Air App for iPhones at  www.apple.com/itunes/  and www.googleplay for Android devices.

Let’s separate fact from fiction and work together to do what we can to improve the air that we breathe. Use this list to find ways to #ShowUCAIR by making new, everyday choices that over time will make a big difference. To find out more visit UCAIR.org