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New air quality system is hardly too complex to figure out, provides more information

Published: Thursday, Aug. 27 2015 1:31 p.m. MDT

A haze hangs over the Wasatch Front on Monday, Nov. 26, 2012. State officials are changing the air quality labeling system.  (Scott G Winterton, Deseret News) A haze hangs over the Wasatch Front on Monday, Nov. 26, 2012. State officials are changing the air quality labeling system. (Scott G Winterton, Deseret News)

When a winter inversion sets in and the air turns thick and biting, you don't need a weatherman to know the wind isn't blowing. What you do need is detailed information on just how unhealthy the air is, and what you can do to limit exposure and help curb the problem.

That's why the state's new system of air quality alerts promises to make people better informed about the severity of an inversion, and let them know precisely when it's time to drive less, exercise indoors and keep wood-burning stoves and fireplaces cold.

The new system replaces the simple green-yellow-red traffic light designations with a more nuanced spectrum of alerts with six color-coded tiers, each coming with specific recommendations based on the severity of pollution levels.

Some health advocacy groups worry the new system is complicated and might confuse people about what actions they should take and when. But that concern is valid if people only pay casual attention when the air turns nasty. By offering more information, the new system may engage residents to focus more diligently on daily pollution levels, especially if the new program is accompanied by a vigorous public information campaign.

Essentially, the new alerts are based on the levels of particulate matter in the air. Under the three-tier system, a red alert would be issued when the level of pollution reached 35.4 micrograms of particulates per cubic meter of air — the level generally considered unhealthy. Now, a red alert requires a reading of 55.5 micrograms.

That means fewer "red alerts" will be issued during a typical winter, a primary concern of the program's critics. But advocates counter that the new system will actually result in more days in which "no burn" recommendations are issued, because that threshold is lowered from a "red alert" status to an alert further down the color scale.

The new system is hardly too complex to figure out, and it's difficult to argue that offering people more information is a bad thing. What is encouraging about the new system is its potential to better engage citizens in the specifics of the pollution problem, which various research and polling has shown is a matter of significant concern for the majority of Utahns.

The question isn't whether an alert of another color will be as persuasive, but whether people are willing to adjust their behavior to meet the scope of the problem. It's logical that people armed with detailed information are more likely to take action than those who simply look out their window during an inversion and judge whether things look better or worse.

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