Wasatch Front residents know wintertime doesn’t just mean shoveling snow and slipping on ice — it also means a sickening buildup of smog.
Most Utah residents have also heard that spending less time on the road is the best way to improve air quality in the region, whether it’s carpooling, combining trips or simply staying at home.
The area’s unique geography traps all pollution, though, as a dense layer of cold air puts a virtual lid over the valleys. That’s why every Wasatch Front resident’s daily habits can help.
Here are five ways to reduce inversion pollution that go beyond decreasing automobile miles.
1. Quit burning things.
A fire might feel cozy during winter’s cold, but it takes a serious toll on health.
“Wood burning is a much bigger issue than people realize,” said Brian Moench of Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment. “Most North American cities have as much of an air pollution problem related to wood burning as they do from vehicles.”
Wood smoke emits harmful fine particles that enter the lungs and cause health problems directly. It also contains gases that mix in the atmosphere and react under sunlight to form secondary particulate pollution. Although the state received a big public backlash when it tried to ban wintertime wood burning two years ago, Moench said the science is in, and the toll of smoke is troubling.
“Wood smoke is uniquely toxic. Studies demonstrate under many different parameters that wood smoke is more toxic than cigarette smoke — 12 to 40 times more toxic,” he said. “The science is there, but public policy and public awareness isn’t. That’s one thing we’re trying to correct.”
Beyond wood, burning all kinds of things, including candles, incense and wood-fired ovens in restaurants. can deteriorate the air quality immediately.
“It makes a tremendous difference with air quality,” said Donna Spangler, spokeswoman for the Utah Department of Environmental Quality. “Especially if you’re sitting in front of the fire ... you’re breathing in particulate pollution directly.”
2. Consider your heating habits.
Wasatch Front residents are likely aware that cars are a big contributor to bad air — around 50 percent of an inversion’s particulate pollution comes from them. But as car and fuel technologies improve, area sources pollution, like homes and businesses, are expected to outpace pollution from cars by 2050.
Just because emissions from natural gas furnaces, appliances and water heaters aren’t as visible as tailpipe exhaust or chimney smoke, they still build up in the atmosphere and react to form particulate pollution.
“Everything we do is sort of a chain of polluting events,” Spangler said. “If we turn on our heat, or turn up the temperature, it’s simply again going to add to pollution in the air.”
There are lots of ways to reduce home emissions. Upgrade gas appliances so they’re energy-efficient. Swap out your old water heater for a low NOx-emitting model. Reset the thermostat.
“Turning down the temperature in the home and having everybody put on a sweater is helpful,” Moench said.
3. Clean out the bathroom and cleaning cabinets.
Lots of household products emit volatile organic compounds that drift into the air and form pollution. These include items you might not expect, like hairsprays, strong cleaners and deodorants.
DEQ’s air quality board passed limitations on the amount of VOCs allowed in consumer products, effective Dec. 1, 2016. But Spangler said because the rule is so new, many homes likely still have polluting products.
“They’re still that out there,” she said. “It doesn’t seem like one person who uses these things may contributing to our pollution, but collectively if you’re talking about the many people living along the Wasatch Front using these things ... it’s going to have an effect.”
She recommends sorting through closets and cabinets to find problematic products. DEQ recommends looking for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s EPA's “Safer Choice” logo. That means the product meets rigorous standards for health and environmental protection.
4. Curb idling.
Sure, a cold car can make a frigid winter day feel that much worse, but idling means more pollution gets trapped in the valleys during inversion events.
Starting up the car in the morning and letting it heat up in the driveway is especially harmful to air quality. A Weber State University, Utah State University and Division of Air Quality study from early 2016 found that driving a car immediately after a cold start helps the catalytic converter reduce emissions by as much as 99 percent.
Some drivers let their car idle after a cold start because they mistakenly think it’s better for the engine. But most do it for warmth, Joe Thomas, Weber State’s director of the National Center for Automotive Science and Technology, said last January.
“They want the inside air to be nice and comfortable before they sit and drive,” he said. “That’s why so many manufacturers offer remote start. But from an air quality standpoint, you’re truly releasing a lot of emissions.”
The Weber-Morgan Health Department is also pushing an educational effort to get people to stop idling around town.
“Any time you’re idling more than 30 seconds, you should turn off your car,” said Scott Braeden, the department’s Air Quality Program manager. “The drive-through is good example. So is picking kids up at school.”
Health officials are especially trying to push idle-free zones at schools, since children are among the most vulnerable to pollution’s harmful effects. The health department has installed signs at school parking lots urging parents to kill their engines while waiting to pick up kids.
“From a personal standpoint, when I pick up my child, I see those signs posted all throughout the parking lot and still see nearly every car idling,” Braeden said. “That’s going to be one of our pushes, and one of our challenges – how do we get people to change their behaviors?”
5. Contact your local representatives.
Inversion pollution is a problem caused by every resident along the Wasatch Front. There’s no changing the weather events that cause inversions, but unified action from people — sometimes with a regulatory push — improves the resulting air quality.
But the state legislature has stalled on passing air-friendly building standards and a seasonal burning ban. Air quality advocates would also like to see mandatory emissions testing for diesel vehicles in non-attainment counties and more state funding for public transit.
“There’s no lack in understanding of what this pollution is doing to us, but there’s a lack of political will to do something about it,” Moench said.
Reaching out to lawmakers on the state and county levels can make a difference. The Weber-Morgan Health Board, for example, passed diesel testing requirements in 2016 largely due to an outpouring of public support. Public frustrations with “coal rollers” also helped prompt the state legislature to pass a law that revokes registrations for smoking vehicles.
But industry lobbyists also bend lawmakers’ ears. That’s why they need to hear directly from constituents concerned about air quality.
“We get really frustrated when (lobbyists) try to block or water down codes. It’s in no one’s long-term interest, not for homeowners, not for public health, and not for the climate,” Moench said.