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Coping with Bad Air During a Pandemic

Earlier this spring we experienced a period of clean air due to lock-downs put in place to prevent the spread of COVID-19. However, Salt Lake City’s summer air quality has been recently impacted by smoke from nearby and regional wildfires, as well as from higher ozone pollution that is typical in the summer.

Graph from Utah Division of Air Quality depicts pronounced spike in pollution on August 20 due to California forest fires.
The Utah Division of Air Quality’s monitors showed a pronounced spike in pollution on August 21 as the winds brought wildfire smoke from California’s devastating fires.

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Bad air quality threatens everyone’s health, particularly those with sensitive respiratory systems. The effects of bad air even have the potential to make COVID-19 even worse. Your lungs are already irritated and inflamed due to pollution, and this makes them more susceptible to infections like COVID.

Ironically, the pandemic – coupled with rising temperatures caused by climate change – are also behind the record number of human-caused fires in Utah. The feedback loop linking pandemic, fires, and bad air is disturbing, but there are ways we can take actions to help protect the air.

Record Number of Human-Caused Fires in Utah

Statewide, Utah is experiencing a record number of fires, the majority of which are human caused. Fire officials have linked the COVID-19 pandemic to the spike in fires, noting that as many activities are limited, Utahns are spending more time outdoors than in past years.

As users flock to public lands, they are triggering fires “on a near daily basis” according to the Salt Lake Tribune from abandoned campfires, illegal fireworks, target shooting, and sparks from equipment. We’ve experienced 825 fires caused by humans in 2020 compared to 435 for the same date in 2019.

Coupled with record temperatures resulting from climate change, the increase in outdoor recreation requires that campers take extra precautions to limit the possibility of fires. Everyone can do their part to reduce fire risks while camping or recreating outside.

Following fire safety rules is an important way to keep communities, natural spaces, and wild animals safe during fire season. You can take the Spark Change Pledge to help reduce fire hazards while enjoying the outdoors this summer.

Climate Change is Fueling the Fires in California — and the Bad Air they Produce

Much of the smoke we experienced in Salt Lake City last week and early this week were a result of fires burning in California.

On a big picture level, humans are causing fires through climate change too. As climate change warms the planet, areas like California and the Western U.S. have experienced less snow pack, earlier melting, dry thunderstorms, high winds, and ultimately dryer and hotter summers. As a result, fires are far more likely and more devastating.

While it is always smart to take personal actions to reduce fire hazards, it is also important to take actions to curb carbon emissions and fight climate change.

As individuals, we can help raise awareness of climate change by discussing it with friends and family; cutting our household carbon emissions; and calling for climate policies at all levels of the government. Salt Lake City’s Climate Positive 2040 Plan outlines the ways our local government is working to Act on Climate.

Keeping the Air Clean

So what can you do? In the short-term, focus on protecting your lungs. The best thing to do on bad air days is stay indoors, especially those with asthma or who are in other sensitive groups.

Then, help reduce the pollution that’s going into the air. Although we may not have much control over the smoke, there are many ways to help protect Salt Lake City’s air quality by taking actions to reduce ozone and PM2.5 pollution.

One way to cut down on emissions that pollute the air is by driving less.

If you do drive, remember to be Idle Free. When you idle, you waste gas, money, and cause pollution that is harmful to people nearby and in the car. That’s why Salt Lake City has an ordinance that prohibits idling for more than two minutes with some exceptions.

Because of the pandemic, there has been an uptick in the number of people using drive-thru’s. Even COVID-19 testing is done from your car.

But you can still help. If possible, roll down your windows, find some shade if you’re waiting, turn your ignition off, and remember that you’re helping keep everyone safe from air pollution.

You can also help keep the air clear by avoiding Volatile Organic Compounds (VOC’s). That means using water-based paint and low-VOC aerosol sprays, certain cleansers, and other household supplies. (Search the “Safer Choice” list here).

You can also help by moving away from 2-stroke engine lawn equipment. If you do have a 2-stroke lawnmower or other equipment, use it in the evening to reduce its impact on air quality.

For more information about dealing with smoke pollution during the COVID-19 pandemic, check out the CDC’s resource page.

Community Actions

By taking action to reduce air pollution, we can help prevent the negative respiratory effects of bad air. This in turn may also help protect others from respiratory illnesses that can make them more at risk of getting COVID-19.

Learn more about air quality, social inequity, climate change, and COVID-19 here:

  • Find out more about the inequities of bad air and how they related to COVID-19 here.
  • If you’re looking for ways to beat the heat this summer, be sure to check out our recent blog post on techniques for keeping cool at home.
  • You can sign up to receive updates from the Utah Department of Air Quality here!
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