Ogden
10:16 am
Wed August 15, 2012

Pretty Sunsets Aside, Current Bad Air May Present a Health Threat

From The Standard Examiner -- The air along the Wasatch Front has taken on a golden glow that looks pretty, but there’s nothing magical about the particulate matter and ozone readings behind it.

That glow is from wildfires raging in Idaho, Nevada and even Washington state. The National Weather Service says neither the fires nor the bad air is going away anytime soon.

The Utah Division of Air Quality says levels of particulate matter in the air haven’t reached dangerous levels yet, but they are high enough that people with lung problems, the elderly and infants should be careful and avoid outdoor exertion.

What’s causing it?

More than two dozen separate wildfires dot northern California, Nevada and southern Idaho. Just one, the Holloway Fire in Humboldt County, Nev., covers more than 330,000 acres and is less than 50 percent contained.

“The smoke from those fires has been moving downstream towards Utah for the last few days,” said National Weather Servie meteorologist Steve Rogowski.

Utah is downstream from the fires, Rogowski said, because there is a giant pillow of high-pressure air sitting on top of Nevada, slowly rotating clockwise. As it rotates, the smoke from the fires is carried around its outside edge, right to Utah.

“Obviously, our air has been suffering and it’s a little harder to see those mountains,” he said.

He expects little change for a week or more.

“Looking long range, my computer models are conflicting but it’s looking like this weather pattern is going to hold up at least through next week,” he said. “So it will be smoky at times for at least another week or so.”

The Utah Division of Air Quality shows that fine particulate matter in the air in Weber County was 14.3 micrograms per cubic meter on Tuesday afternoon. That is just shy of the 15 micrograms that would make the air “moderate” in terms of how healthy it is to breathe.

Davis and Salt Lake counties were better, with a reading of 6.1 micrograms per cubic meter.

Bo Call, spokesman at the Division of Air Quality, said much of the stuff making the air look more yellow is from those fires, but Utah’s normal summer pollution from factories, refineries and, especially, cars, also is to blame.

Cars normally account for half the air pollution in Utah air, he said, especially ozone. Ozone is actually more dangerous “because you can’t tell how bad it is when you look at it.”

Ozone is created when heat combines unburned hydrocarbons with nitrogen in the air. It builds up in the afternoon as temperatures rise and vehicle exhaust accumulates.

Ozone on Tuesday afternoon was at 0.06 parts per million, or just high enough to be “moderate” on the danger scale.

Both ozone and fine particulate matter carry unburned hydrocarbons and other chemicals into the bloodstream, where they cause inflammation leading to breathing and heart problems, especially in the young and elderly.

Call said both will last as long as the fires and weather system stay the same.

“Those really pretty sunsets we get every evening?” he said. “That is pollution.”