The Inversion Problem
Recently, my mother was going through old letters my grandfather had written to my grandmother when they were engaged to be married. At the time, my grandfather was looking for a place he could build a home for himself and his fiancé, who would be moving to Utah from Sacramento to marry him. In one letter, dated from 1946, he wrote: “Darling, I’m looking at a couple of lots this evening. They lie at 900 South and 2200 East and are out of the smoke district. I’ll write more about them after I see them.”
Over 70 years ago, when they were building their first house, my grandparents were trying to stay out of the inversion.
As evidenced by the letter from my grandfather, the inversion is not a new problem, rather, it’s something we have dealt with throughout the valley for a long time. For better or worse, air quality is an issue that touches every aspect of our lives—our personal health, the health of our economy, and the beauty of our state. And, as in my grandfather’s day more than 70 years ago, air quality may be a make or break factor for those wanting to call Utah home.
What we do know is that things are getting better; we are making progress when it comes to the inversion. Over the last decade, 350,000 residents have been added to the Wasatch Front, yet, we have decreased our total emissions by 35 percent. While technologies have certainly helped curtail emissions, changing societal behaviors have also had a significant impact. Every small change we make contributes to better air including carpooling, avoiding idling, riding transit, skipping the trip altogether, switching to electric lawn mowers and snow blowers, and converting wood stoves.
Your Choices Affect Air Quality
Utah has benefitted from steady job growth across many sectors for the past 10 years. Technology, in particular, has been a significant growth center where multiple private and public entities have partnered together in efforts to successfully attract some of the biggest brands to our state. But getting companies to relocate here is just half the battle, the other half is enticing them to stay.
In a February op-ed for the Deseret News, former lieutenant governor and president of the Utah Hospital Association, Greg Bell reported that 68 percent of tech workers list poor air quality as the number one reason they would consider leaving Utah. We can’t afford to have the inversion sideline our economic growth.
Maintaining a healthy economy is going to require individuals, private funding, and public monies to work together toward better air. The good news is, it is happening. This past September, the Utah Clean Air Partnership (UCAIR) partnered with Lighthouse Research and heard from respondents that 57 percent acknowledged, unaided, that they were responsible for the solutions— not the government or their neighbor, individuals! There are ways for every Utahn to get involved and people are becoming aware that while there are no perfect answers, they can be part of practical solutions.
Unfortunately, more than half of the people in the UCAIR/Lighthouse research survey said they idle would only be willing to do something if it was convenient or cost-effective. With our population expected to double by 2035, improving the air we breathe is crucial to maintaining a healthy economy. That’s why UCAIR’s focus is on providing actions and programs to individuals empowering them to make changes, save money, and improve their quality of life.
Things You Can Do To Reduce Emissions
During his State of the State Address, Governor Herbert set a goal to reduce our per capita emissions by 25 percent by 2026.
With half of emissions coming from our tailpipes, There are plenty of ways the general population can help achieve that goal. Simply shutting off your engine rather than idling makes a big difference. For every 10 minutes your engine is off, instead of idling, you’ll eliminate one pound of emissions. (Source: Environmental Defense Fund.) You’ll also save money. Fifteen minutes of idling burns a quarter gallon of gas. (Source: AAA.)
When waiting to pick up children from school, sports practice, or music lessons, waiting with your car running makes people walk through a cloud of exhaust that then deteriorates our air quality. And when exposed to elevated levels of pollutants caused by idling, children have an increased risk of developing severe health problems, such as asthma or other respiratory problems. We need everyone to contribute just a little bit. It’s as simple as throwing a blanket or two in your car, that way, if you show up early to pick up your child, you can wait without idling to keep warm.
Some circumstances are unavoidable, of course, but there are certainly many ways drivers can spend less time idling. The next time you’re thinking about grabbing food or coffee, don’t wait in the drive-through line with your car running. Instead, choose to park and stretch your legs by going inside to order. This simple action will eliminate the nitrogen oxides (NOx) and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) emissions, precursors of PM2.5, that would be emitted with idling. If you are sitting idle in a drive-through, grocery store, or school pickup line for more than a minute, turn off your engine.
Trip chaining―or chaining trips together rather than running an errand and going home then going out again―is another simple and cost-effective change to help the inversion that takes just a little planning. As is teleworking. Reducing the number of miles you drive during rush hour, especially during an inversion, is crucial. If your office doesn’t offer teleworking as an option, bring up the benefits with your management team to get them on board.
If you are in the market for a new vehicle, check its smog rating on UCAIR.org. The higher the number the better the vehicle is for our air. Another option is to go electric. Electric vehicles (EVs) have zero emissions and the infrastructure of charging stations across the state is expanding each year.
Finally, replacing your traditional water heater for an ultra low-NOx water heater can reduce NOx emissions by 75 percent. Through a grant sponsored by Chevron and Marathon, UCAIR recently helped over 200 households upgrade their water heaters; this is a simple solution that you can do too.
State-Funded Initiatives That Can Help
Demonstrating the increasing support for funding initiatives that impact our air, the legislature approved $29 million in one-time funding to support wood stove conversions, free-fare transit days, teleworking, increased air quality monitoring and research, as well as continued air quality education.
During the wintertime, some of our worst pollutants come from wood-burning stoves and fireplaces. Researchers from the Utah Division of Air Quality found that an average of 16 percent of the PM2.5 pollution in Salt Lake County came from wood burning smoke. The particulates from wood smoke are small enough to be inhaled and then pass into our blood through the lungs, making this pollution especially important to avoid.
Two previous wood-burning stove conversion campaigns were extremely successful, with the funds being claimed in just weeks. A new influx of $9 million was just approved to extend exchange funds to residents living in non-attainment areas to convert their wood-burning stove or fireplace to clean natural gas or propane fuels.
Knowing that during inversion season air pollution doubles daily, a pilot program has been funded where free fare days―seven over the next three years―will be offered to decrease the number of tailpipes on our roads this coming winter.
Funding was also allocated for air quality education efforts. To learn easy, inexpensive things anyone can do now, visit the UCAIR website www.ucair.org for information on exchange programs, idling and smog rating calculators, links to current air quality conditions from the Utah Department of Environmental Quality, and air quality apps.
Working together to take action today will continue to improve the air we breathe and our economic outlook for tomorrow.
Thom Carter is the executive director at UCAIR. Learn more at www.ucair.org.