Air quality app helps Utahns determine when it's safe to be outside

Published: Friday, Jan. 24 2014 8:16 p.m. MST

SALT LAKE CITY — Air quality levels improved Friday to a moderate level after days of a relentless inversion for many Utahns.

As concerns about air quality continue, residents now have access to a new tool that can help them during the inversion's inevitable return — an app that gives hourly air quality updates.

The Utah Air app hit the market in November, and has since been downloaded more than 12,000 times. The hourly tracking indicates that in Salt Lake County, for example, the hours when PM2.5 — or small dust and soot particles — is at its highest levels is from about 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.

"It's like throwing sand in the engine of a car," Dr. Brian Moench, president of Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment, said of breathing in the polluted air. "You might be able to get by with that for a while, maybe you won't notice. But over time, it might create problems."

The average person breathes 100 million particles in the air pollution in a 24-hour period, according to Moench. Exercising and breathing heavily increases the number of particles that are inhaled and carried into the bloodstream to organs like the brain, lungs and fetuses in pregnant women.

"You're probably doing yourself more harm from the air pollution than you are good from the exercise," Moench said.

Bo Call, air monitoring section manager for the Division of Air Quality, said now that Utahns have information about Utah's air, they're asking how to change the air quality.

"The public is really embracing this," he said. "The information that's available now makes sense. You can put it to use ... make your own choices, and because of that, people want more information."

The app allows users to see current air quality indexes in counties throughout the state. It indicates whether the air quality index is stable, increasing or decreasing. It also shows the current temperature and wind as well as upcoming health and action forecasts.

Hour by hour trends show users when the PM2.5 rises and falls, giving residents an opportunity to choose the healthiest times to go outside.

"Is there a time today when I can go and exercise or do my stuff outside that would be better for me than other times of the day? And there certainly is," Call said.

Moench said he doesn't like to exercise in anything above a particulate matter level of 35 of 40 micrograms per cubic meter of air. On the air quality index, that would be between a moderate level and an unhealthy level for sensitive groups.

"I don't want my children outside exercising at levels that are higher than that either," he said. "This is really a public health emergency."

He said there is an overarching message about air pollution from research in the last 10 to 15 years.

"It's very clear that there's no amount of air pollution that's safe," Moench said. "Just like there's no safe number of cigarettes you can smoke."

"It's the ongoing problem in the winter," said Laurie Googasian, who bikes everyday to work. "You get to work and it tastes like you've licked an ashtray and it takes half an hour to finish coughing. It burns to breathe."

By doing her best not to contribute to the air pollution, she fears she may get lung cancer.

"There's such a level of denial about what's actually causing (the air pollution)," she said. "We live in the bottom of a bowl where we have weather conditions that cause this."

Googasian said it is up to every person and business to take responsibility and improve the air quality.

Email: eeagar@deseretnews.com

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