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Check Your Health: The impact of poor air quality on our health and how to prevent it

Check Your Health - Air Quality and COVID-19
Check Your Health - Air Quality and COVID-19
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For people with underlying health conditions like asthma, lung disease, heart disease, and stroke, poor air quality can worsen these health issues. Even those who don’t suffer from these conditions should limit their exposure when air quality is poor.

In Utah, when winter inversions set in it often includes fine particles known as PM 2.5 which can get trapped in the lungs and cause problems. One of those issues includes inflammation in the body which exacerbates health problems. It can also cause health issues for those who don’t have other ailments or lung issues.

“When the lungs are dealing with inflammation, they become stressed and can be more susceptible to infections like COVID-19 and the flu,” said Liz Joy, MD, senior medical director of health and wellness at Intermountain Healthcare. “When PM 2.5 is elevated across the valley people are encouraged to spend less time outdoors and avoid strenuous activity. This is a good time to take workouts inside if you can while still maintaining social distancing.”

Air pollution can also cause childhood asthma, and in combination with common viral infections may lead to hospitalizations in children, said Dr. Joy. Pregnant moms should also take caution, according to Joy, exposure to air pollution has been associated with preterm deliveries.

Vehicle exhaust is the largest contributor to poor air quality, and reducing driving has the biggest impact to prevent it.

Thom Carter, executive director of Utah Clean Air Partnership, notes how quickly air quality improves when we drive less.

“It was proven back in March during the early part of the COVID-19 pandemic when restrictions meant people were driving considerably less.” Carter said. “It showed large improvements in air quality during a time when inversions are an issue.”

Along with driving less, clean air advocates say there are several steps people can take to prevent bad air quality:

Be Idle Free: Whether waiting to pick up kids from school or in the drive through people should turn off their engine. According to the Environmental Protection Agency if a car is running for more than 10 seconds it saves more fuel to turn it off and back on again.

Combine Trips: Try to combine errands and do them in the same trip. This will save time and decrease the amount of pollution you put into the air.

Avoid Short Trips: Studies have shown the worst car pollution happens within the first few minutes of a vehicle starting up and moving - that’s why short car trips are bad for air quality. Experts suggest walking or biking when possible to avoid unnecessary emissions.

Don’t Warm Up a Vehicle: Modern vehicles don’t have to “warm up” to work properly so idling in the driveway only adds to the bad air. The EPA notes that a car’s heater warms up faster by driving than by idling.

Telework: If your job allows, try to work from home to avoid driving all together, especially on days when the Air Quality Index (AQI) is in the orange zone of higher. Download the EPA’s app to your smartphone so you can check on the AQI daily.

Use Public Transit: Try to use public transportation to get to where you’re going. See if your employer offers discounted passes.

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Bad air during the Wasatch Front’s typical winter inversion is a compounding issue, meaning that air pollution builds up over time. Taking these steps before the air quality deteriorates to dangerous levels can help prevent it from getting there in the first place. That’s why clean air advocates urge people to adopt better habits throughout the year.