There were 31 days above federal Clean Air Act standards during the inversion season from Nov. 1, 2013, to March 1, 2014, compared to 29 days during the same period the previous season. Government officials have noticed, and are working in the Legislature and elsewhere to set standards and find solutions to clean the air. But for some Utahns a temporary solution comes in the form of a mask, providing comfort in some ways, and health helps in others. Here, then, is a look at what motivates the people living life behind a mask.
There is one thought that floods Tina Taft's mind each morning as she opens her eyes.
"Before I get out of bed, I roll over and I check my e-mails and I pull up the Clean Air app," the Sugar House mother of two said.
A yellow day, or moderate on the air quality index, and a PM2.5 reading above 25 percent means 10-year-old Tony will be wearing his air mask to recess.
"That's it. That's the biggest part of how we start our mornings is figuring out, throughout the day, how we can keep ourselves safe and healthy during the bad air inversions."
Tony is teased. But Tina said he always has a comeback.
"In 10 or 15 years when you have holes in your brain from the pollution, (you know how kids are), you'll remember me in my mask," she said.
"He knows that I do it because it's important to me and it's important to his health."
Tina and her husband Joseph just bought a house. They're talking about having another baby. Salt Lake is a place she wants to call home.
"It terrifies me being pregnant and exposed to the air during the winter months," she said. "To think it's something that we're exposing ourselves to as mothers everyday that we're pregnant is, it's just mind-boggling to me. I worry and worry and worry."
Amanda was a runner in college. She ran on red air days. She never checked air quality.
Now she rides her bike to work. The days spent breathing in Utah's' unclean air left Amanda's chest heavy at night.
"I didn't want to not be able to ride my bike to work," she said. "But I also didn't want to breathe in the air."
She now wears her mask every orange and red day.
Amanda chose a pink and white air mask not a black one.
"It was girlier and less scary looking," she said. "I wanted to be outside more so I got one."
She noticed her chest feeling heavy less often.
"I feel like my heart rate stays a little bit lower," she said. "You can't taste the bad air."
She said there is no healthy amount of air pollution.
"Just breathing in a little can affect you a lot."
Amanda now checks Utah's air quality religiously.
"It's not that big of a deal to put a mask on," she said. "I really like Salt Lake and if I'm going to live here for a long time then I would rather not, you know, die soon because of it."
Heather remembers her first winter in Salt Lake three years ago. She remembers the air.
"It would irritate your eyes and throat," she said.
PM2.5 did not bode well with her mucus–filled lungs.
Heather has cystic fibrosis.
But that doesn't keep her in a car.
"If I'm driving because I don't want to subject my lungs to the crud in the air then I'm a part of the problem," she said.
The benefits of exercise far outweigh negative consequences of air pollution, she said— as long as you're taking the precautions to protect yourself.
Hence the air mask.
She heard mention of the inversion and air pollution before her arrival.
"But I didn't really understand it until I lived in it," she said. "I do think it's a little ironic that I've ended up here."
She asks herself if she's putting her life in jeopardy by living in Utah.
"Unfortunately I don't think that there's anyway to know," she said. "Until you start experiencing problems five years from now..."
She said she's willing to stick around because she believes Salt Lake City is on the edge of change.
"It's the make and break factor for whether I live here long-term."
Four-year-old Zac said the inside of his mask feels like water; it makes him breathe.
The other kids ask him why he wears a mask during recess
"Because I don't want my rash to be yucky," he tells them.
Alicia Connell said her son gets a rash when he goes outside. Doctors said it could be environmental or a food allergy.
She believes it's from the particles in Utah's air.
Karissa, 12, said she worries about getting sick, about getting cancer. She worries about the pollutants that fall down on her like snow, or hang in the air above her.
As a mother, protecting her children is Alicia's job. She worries about air quality everyday.
"Sadly, a lot of the health problems we've had make us wonder what else is to come," she said.
Alicia and her husband Alan have considered leaving the state.
"We're really talking about our health here," Alan said. "As individuals, it's the single most important, selfish thing we can do —is take care of our own bodies."
But as Alicia stares at the mountainous backdrop to her Farmington community —on a clear air day —she exclaims, "It's so nice when you can see the mountains! It's a beautiful state when they let it be."
With cross-country skis and two leashes in his hands, Rick looks out at miles and miles of frozen salt water.
On good air days, he can see Antelope Island. He's ecstatic.
"It's sad that I have to be happy because I have clean air so I can go out," he said. "It's sad."
Rick doesn't ski on red air days. And on yellow days, he always wears his mask.
"There's just so many health concerns that you have," he said. "All the toxins in the air is just, it's a real concern how is this going to effect us."
The dogs, Maddy and Garff, are no exception.
"Should I even bring them anymore? Because I worry about them breathing this stuff."
He asks if it is better not to exercise or breathe the bad air.
"You know you breathe so hard when you do that," he said, of cross country skiing.
"The toxins are getting in, the particles, in your lungs. You just wonder what kind of worries are you going to have as far as ill-health."
He feels a little safer wearing his mask.
"I hope I am."
What began simply as environmental interest soon became a no-brainer for Jack Ledbetter.
"I mean, it's visible," she said of the air pollution.
"If I can see it, what does that mean? As far as what it's doing inside my body?"
Any urban activity left Jack with a sore throat, headaches and nausea.
On orange and red days she wears her air mask outside, in her car, and in her house.
Amusement, snickers, and confusion meet Jack and her air mask. In the grocery store people eye and point to the mask she's slipped down around her throat.
Jack said the air mask is essential.
"Of course you would protect yourself in that way," she said. "Why would I just gladly allow exhaust and chemical pollution in my lungs?"
Others praise her efforts.
"I don't mind being in the public eye," she said.
She feels it gives others information and the ability to control their health.
"Ignorance isn't necessarily their fault but they're still going to reap the consequences of it."
She wishes there were more mask colors, or that they didn't resemble Batman's Bane so much.
"At the same time, I like the intensity of the statement."
A bit of spilled bleach in a closed space caused a burning that was too familiar to Todd Seymour.
"It felt just like biking on a winter day."
The anesthesiologist bikes nine miles to one job, and seven to another.
It's a source of emotional well-being for Todd.
He averages 12 miles per hour.
With a typical air mask, he averages eight.
One battery-powered car tire pump, two empty plastic bottles, epoxy, a filter and a ventilation bag later, Todd had his own "positive pressure canister filter."
He straps the pack to his bike and stops to change the batteries every 17 minutes.
"It's just me trying to stay alive, honestly," he said. "PM2.5 doesn't just stop at your lungs."
Instead of breathing through a quarter-inch air filter, he breathes through seven inches.
His riding speed was back up to about 10-11 miles per hour.
"It's very important for us not to just give up in despair," he said. "Nine out of 10 people would love to fix the environment if they could."
Todd doesn't know if we can save the planet.
"But I'm not going to stop trying," he said. "Because any given day that I'm trying is a better day for me."