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Debunking Utah's Most Common Air Quality Myths

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For many in Utah, waking up to a winter wonderland of fresh mountain powder, neighborhood sledding and gorgeous snow-capped trees is nothing less than magical. Yet there are some days when that beauty is marred by a settling blanket of inversion smog. This is most often followed by intense debate around the state about the causes of our poor air. It can be confusing to separate myth from fact.

Here are a few of the most common winter air quality misperceptions, along with responses provided by scientists at the Utah Department of Environmental Quality.

Myth: Turning your car off and then restarting it releases more emissions than idling while in line.

Fact: It is true that idling more than 30 seconds adds to our air pollution problem. Division of Air Quality scientists suggest turning your key when idling more than 30 seconds, and definitely turn your car off if you need to put your car in park.

Have kids? It’s important to realize that children breathe air into their lungs much more rapidly than adults, so idling your car in a school loading zone can have immediate health effects on the most vulnerable among us. Not only does this kind of idling contribute to overall poor air quality, but the proximity and height of vehicle exhaust pipes to the young children who pass by sets up a senseless respiratory risk. Show them you care by turning off the engine when waiting.

Myth: Refineries and other industrial sources are the biggest air polluters along the Wasatch Front.

Fact: Vehicle exhaust is by far the largest contributor to air pollution—roughly 48 percent. 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. These facts make your decision to use mass transit, trip chain, carpool, walk and bike an excellent way to reduce the amount of air pollution you create.

It’s a startling fact that the amount of pollution in our air doubles every day during an inversion period, so it’s best not to emit more and more vehicle exhaust into the mix.

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: Our mountains, valleys and weather do play a big role in trapping our pollution along the Wasatch Front. Yet there are many things you and your family can do that will help keep our air clean.

• Tune and drive your newest car. Newer, well-tuned cars reduce air pollution dramatically.

• Check the smog rating when buying a new car. 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.

• Reduce the number of car “cold starts” you make each day. About 60-90 percent of your car’s emissions occur in the first 50 seconds after a cold start. Because of this, you can make a dramatic reduction in pollution by chaining your trips together or carpooling with others who have errands.

• Plan to use a no-emission snow shovel instead of a snow blower.

• Replace your old water heater with an ultra-low NOx water heater. This can reduce 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: Health warning! Wood burning creates microscopic pieces of pollution that can enter your blood stream and can cause health effects like coughing, headache, eye and throat irritation, asthma attacks, heart problems and more.

Also, 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.

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 every hour of every day. To check the current PM2.5 pollution 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. To find out more visit UCAIR.org

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