UTAH (ABC4) – Smog from wildfires hung heavy over Utah’s mountains, obscuring some completely from view over the weekend.
And wildfire smoke will continue to be an issue Monday in the northern half of the state. The Department of Environmental Quality is calling for unhealthy air with high particulate matter in Salt Lake, Davis, Box Elder, Weber, and Utah counties.
But who falls into the category of a sensitive group? And are there steps that even those deemed as “healthy” should take to stay safe? We found the answers to these questions and more.
Who falls under the sensitive group category?
According to Bryce Bird, director of the Division of Air Quality, this refers to children, the elderly, and anyone with a compromised respiratory system, asthma, or heart disease. This can also apply to people who have lung damage from COVID-19.
“It’s people who are more sensitive to the impacts of air pollution because of decreased lung capacity, or in the case of children, because they are more active and breathe more air. They’re impacted for greater extent than those of us who may be a little bit more sedentary,” Bird tells ABC4.com.
Dr. Robert Paine, pulmonary and critical care medical physician at University of Utah Health, says generally those over 65 years old and below 2 years old are in that sensitive group. However, he says that these ages are not hard cutoffs at all.
Exposure to air pollution can especially impact children, according to Paine. Children with asthma can experience worse symptoms when the air quality is bad, and exposure to pollution can cause children to develop asthma. Finally, children who are exposed to long-term air pollution can experience decreased lung growth.
“Their lungs actually grow less over time, so that when they reach college, they may have lungs that haven’t grown quite as much as their peers,” he states.
When it comes to health conditions, Paine says those who have lung disease and chronic obstructive lung disease from smoking are also in the sensitive group.
“An important group is folks with heart disease…,” he says. “We worry about the lungs but there are a lot of cardiac effects, and people may have troubles with heart attacks, with arrhythmias, bad heart rhythms. So anyone who has heart disease is certainly in a high risk category, when we talk about air pollution.”
However, all Utahns can take steps to stay safe and healthy on poor air quality days.
What can Utahns protect their health on poor air quality days?
It’s very important for those with heart and lung disease to pay attention to how they’re feeling on bad air quality days, Paine says.
“Listen to their body and not just soldier on outside in the bad air,” he explains. “They should always use their medications well, but during these periods, it’s particularly important.”
Paine says he tells his patients to have a plan in place for when the air quality is bad. For example, those with asthma might make a plan to use their rescue inhaler and have a backup plan if the rescue inhaler isn’t doign the job.
“Think through in advance how you’re going to respond to this,” he says.
Those who aren’t considered to be in a sensitive group are definitely safer than those who are, but they can still do things to avoid pollution. For both children and adults, exercising outdoors when the air quality is bad can have negative effects.
“We want them to be active and exercising, but we would like to avoid having them exposed to higher levels of pollution. And the reason for that is that when you exercise, you obviously breathe a lot more, and you end up depositing more particulates, the PM 2.5 in your lungs. So the amount that gets deposited per breath actually goes up a little bit when you exercise because of the way the way the turbulence works in your chest,’ he explains.
Because of this, he recommends that people exercise early in the morning or late at night when pollution is often lightest. He also recommends indoor exercise. He advises against running outside when people typically get out of work because air quality tends particularly bad around that time.
If they’ve got something they can do indoors, that’s great. Swim or something like that, but try to avoid being out and inhaling all this gunk,” he says.
Bird advises people to be sensitive to how their body is responding.
“If you feel burning in your eyes or your lungs feel heaviness, that could be an indication that even healthy people are perhaps being impacted to a greater extent,” he says.
Where is the pollution coming from?
The bulk of the air pollution that Utah is currently experiencing is from wildfires, Bird confirms.
According to Paine, typically during the summer, Utah experiences higher levels of ozone pollution and less particulate matter (PM 2.5) pollution, which is more common during wintertime inversions. However, Utah is currently seeing elevated levels of both, he says.
He also tells ABC4 that the particulate matter from wildfires, which Utah is currently seeing, can be more dangerous that the usual particulate matter that comes from vehicle tailpipes and industrial sources.
“Both of them are bad, but the wildfire smoke may actually be a little worse. It’s got an enormous collection of stuff in it and many of the particular chemicals that are listed are carcinogens that cause cancer,” he explains.
“There’s lots of lumps of chemicals that stimulate inflammation in the lungs and activate your lungs response to injury. It can cause cough and shortness of breath and can trigger the pathways that can eventually lead to heart troubles in somebody who’s already got pre existing cardiac disease.”
What are the signs that the air quality is bad?
A strong smoke smell or feeling a burning or irritation in your eyes are signs of a bad air quality day, Bird states. And seeing smog is not always an accurate indication of pollution levels.
“Often with these distant wildfires, we see a lot of visibility impact because the particles are small, and then they fill up kind of the entire air shed or the entire atmosphere is filled up and so often, it looks worse than it really is,” he explains.
In addition, keeping track of the air quality index is an accurate way of knowing when air quality is reaching dangerous levels. When it reaches the orange level, sensitive groups are impacted by the pollution. When it reaches red, the same warnings are extended to all groups, Bird explains.
How can Utahns help reduce air pollution?
Utahns can drive less, Bird says.
“Certainly right now we’re getting the impact from this regional smoke, but we’re also adding to it our normal emissions that we have here as a metropolitan area. And so what we can do is drive less and be careful about what we do,” he states.
“And so, you’re driving less carpooling, avoiding trips is important. Even some consumer products that use- so when we fill our lawn mower or mow our lawns, that adds to the air pollution. So these small things we can do during these specific times can reduce what we add, but then relieve the overall burden of air pollution here along in our urban areas.”
Visit air.utah.gov to monitor the air quality in your county.