SALT LAKE CITY (ABC4) – During the winter months, Salt Lake City is a beautiful place to be. Beginning in late fall, the tall, commanding Wasatch Mountains that border our city are dusted with snow, and opportunities for skiing, snowshoeing, and sledding are practically in our backyard. But just as the snow blankets the Wasatch Front in the winter, a much less pristine cloud settles over our city as well.

Salt Lake’s infamous inversion – in which colder air above air traps warm, polluted air in the Valley – is, like the snow, a fixture during winter months. It’s not uncommon for the air quality index reach dramatic enough levels that Utahns are urged to work from home to avoid unnecessary car pollution.

Typically, those with preexisting conditions – like asthma or other diseases affecting the lungs – are urged to protect themselves on these days. But according to Dr. Denitza Blagev, a pulmonary physician with Intermountain Healthcare, inversion air quality has negative health effects for everyone.

“There’s no shortage of short and long-term health risks of poor air quality,” she explains. “I think one of the first things we should understand is that even when we talk about inversion and air pollution being bad for sensitive groups, really, it’s bad for everybody.”

According to an article written by Robert Paine, chief of the pulmonology division at University of Utah Health, the primary pollutant that makes up Utah’s inversion is known as PM 2.5. PM 2.5 is composed of particulate matter – tiny particles that are “just the perfect size to get down into the working part of the lung.”

And this type of pollution takes a toll on citizens. On days when inversion is particularly severe, Blagev says there’s an increased chance of asthma and COPD flare-ups, heart failure, heart attack, and stroke. In addition, those with autoimmune diseases are also at an increased risk for a flare-up.

In the short term, poor air quality can also cause shortness of breath, coughing, or wheezing, particularly for those with preexisting conditions.

As far as long-term effects, the outlook is also pretty grim.

“There are studies showing increased all-cause mortality, increased lung cancer, and increased risk of developing heart or lung disease in people that live in areas of high air pollution,” Blagev says.

Long term PM 2.5 exposure has also been linked to premature births, severe pneumonia, and deterioration of mental capacities in senior citizens.

And according to Paine’s article, exposure to poor air quality can also contribute to developing more severe, even life-threatening cases of COVID-19.

So, given the clearly colossal health risks of continual exposure to poor air quality, what can Utahns do to protect themselves?

According to Blagev, there are a variety of action steps to take at the individual level.

Firstly, on particularly polluted days, she encourages residents to stay inside as much as possible.

“When we’re in the high air pollution days, generally the indoor air will be cleaner than the outdoor air,” she says.

The same principle applies for exercising, Paine writes. Although going for a run in the cool winter air might seem appealing, during days of poor air quality, indoor exercise options are best. IF you must exercise outside, Paine adds, it’s best to do so in the morning, seeing as pollution is typically not as bad during the earlier hours.

But even if you’re staying indoors as much as possible, there are additional precautions you can take. Blagev says that it’s important to make sure your furnace filters are clean, and it is also advisable to invest in a HEPA filter or air purifier, too.

“Up to half of the air pollution indoors actually comes from the outside,” she explains. “They have a filter that will trap those really, really fine particles.”

Additionally, wearing a high-quality mask – like an N95 or KN95 – is helpful to filter out PM 2.5 when you do need to be out and about.

“The regular cloth masks or surgical masks are pretty good in terms of reducing your viral exposure, but the air pollution particles are really tiny, and they pass right through the mask and into the lungs,” Blagev says.