SALT LAKE CITY -- The Utah Division of Air Quality unveiled its new air quality alert system this week in an effort to help reduce confusion surrounding wood burning days versus when its unhealthy to be outside.
Up until now, the DAQ and the Department of Environmental Quality used the same color codes to alert the public.
"We've had this green, yellow, red system to tell people when they can burn wood and when they can't," said Bo Call, manager of the air monitoring center at the DAQ and DEQ. "It became increasingly confusing for the public because the Division of Air Quality has a similar color scheme to tell people when the air is good or bad for them to be outdoors, so we have a new alert system we hope will be easier to understand and also will be more proactive."
Instead of using colors, the new system will use symbols, Call said. A circle means unrestricted action where it's OK to use wood and coal burning stoves as well as fireplaces but to please use them in a proper manner to reduce smoke emissions.
An inverted triangle stands for voluntary action, which means the public can voluntarily choose not to use wood and coal burning stoves or fireplaces as well as reducing vehicle use. Industries should also optimize operating conditions to minimize air pollution emissions.
An X is a mandatory symbol, meaning wood and coal burning stoves and fireplaces cannot be used and vehicles should be used as little as possible. When mandatory restrictions are in place, the use of solid fuel appliances could result in penalties ranging up to $299 per day.
The new alert system helps to curb both vehicle and wood burning emissions, Call said. Wood burning restrictions aim to help reduce hard to see particle pollution that builds up during inversion periods.
"So we could have a storm and as soon as things settle down, it might look clear outside, but that inversion is starting to build up," Call said. "You might not see it at first but it's going to build up and stay in the valley. If we can get the alerts out before the inversion sets in, people can start taking more proactive measures and hopefully we can prevent the problem from coming on so quickly."
Call said the inversion is much like tap water. If you turn on the faucet full blast, you'll have a full sink in just a few minutes, but if you turn the faucet on a trickle it will take longer to fill. With the new alert system, warnings can go out sooner, before standard levels of danger are met. The national 24-hour standard for Particulate Matter (PM) 2.5 is set at 35 micrograms per cubic meter of PM 2.5 in the ambient air, averaged over 24 hours.
"In years past, if we thought it was going to be over 35 we could call a red air day. Now with the rule change, we're able to make that call more pro-actively with a level as low as 12," Call said. "So hopefully this action will slow down the development of high pollution levels."
The EPA's national standard Air Quality Index, which is divided into six color coded categories that correspond to different levels of pollution and related guidance for individuals with health concerns will remain the same.
The DAQ monitors air pollution hourly and provides a three day action forecast on its website to help residents plan ahead and adjust their activities during periods of winter inversions. Go to www.airquality.utah.gov for information or call 1-800-228-5434. You can also subscribe to the Choose Clean Air email alerts at www.deq.utah.gov/ListServ.