Experts Find Small Pandemic Changes Had Big Impact On Utah Air Quality

Apr 22, 2021, 10:43 PM | Updated: 10:45 pm

SALT LAKE CITY, Utah — Once a year in a global event, people come together to celebrate the beautiful natural resources we share on Earth Day.

The COVID-19 pandemic has showed us even small changes in our daily routine can have a significant impact on our environment. One outdoorsy Utah couple definitely saw those changes.

Cherry and Donny Hazard are the ultimate adventurers.

“Oh, I love the outdoors so much. I moved to Utah because it’s Utah. I love it!” Cherry Hazard explained.

From seeking out breathtaking views in canyons, on mountains and rivers, they do it all.

“(Utah) has everything from the salt flats to the canyon country to red rock to the mountains … just gorgeous. There’s great rivers, there’s great lakes,” she said. “It’s so healing; it’s so balancing.”

The Hazards own a whitewater rafting company, which is one reason they’re passionate about caring for our state’s natural resources.

“We’re very big advocates of keeping our rivers pure and clean and natural. We are big into Leave No Trace because the rivers are our life,” Hazard said. “Whatever happens with them pollution-wise will cause issues downstream into so many communities and ecosystems, and so it can cause so much impact.”

Hazard grew up in the Northeast and worked for several years in New York City. She grew tired of the city’s pollution and headed to Utah for better air and Utah’s marvelous landscape.

In the 10 years Hazard has lived in Utah, she’s seen her fair share of bad air days brought on by the inversion. “You don’t even want to be outside, let alone doing anything that’s going to impact your cardiorespiratory system,” she said.

But she said this year, during the pandemic, was different.

“I could breathe easier, and it just didn’t have that smell, that taint — that ugly greenish-yellowish-grayish look,” Hazard said. “The Earth itself did have a chance to heal, to rest, to pause, to breathe a little bit better.”

She believes the reprieve in pollution has not only benefitted humankind, but also wildlife and water quality.

Intermountain Healthcare’s Dr. Liz Joy, senior medical director of wellness and nutrition for the health care company, confirmed Utah saw a reduction in many air pollutants with 40% fewer cars on the road in March 2020 through the summer.

“We saw a decrease in nitric oxide, a decrease in PM 2.5, as well as a decrease in our summer ozone levels,” Joy described.

Despite higher-than-normal temperatures last summer, the Wasatch Front had one of the best air quality years on record with 273 green days, 78 yellow, 14 orange, and only one red day, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

Joy said this illustrates better air quality for Utah is a tangible possibility.

“We definitely have the ability to clean the air by, in particular, reducing tailpipe emissions,” she said.

But today, Joy says we are essentially back to prepandemic levels of traffic. She said air pollution is bad for everyone, including those with health challenges, and even kids.

“It’s particularly bad for people who have underlying conditions — so older adults who may have a higher burden of disease like heart disease and stroke,” she explained. “Air pollution is bad for kids because they tend to be outside more, they breathe faster and deeper, and exposure to air pollution in childhood can actually cause asthma, not only make asthma worse.”

Where possible, she encourages people to telework and urges employers to be creative in finding ways to accommodate teleworking policies.

“The less we drive, the less ozone we make, so efforts to continue teleworking are going to be really important,” she said.

Joy is also concerned by the high levels of pollution Utahns create in caring for their lawn.

“We have a lot of grass in Utah — despite the fact that we live in a desert — and gas-powered lawnmowers emit a tremendous amount of pollution,” she said. “A gas-powered lawnmower emits 11 times more pollution than a new car (hour-for-hour).”

Joy recommends people invest in electric or human-powered lawn equipment, or xeriscape their yard instead.

She also urges people to reduce the number of times they hit the road by “trip chaining,” since the initial cold start of a car puts off the most pollutants.

Trip chaining is “trying to do all your car-based errands at once so that you’re not starting and stopping multiple times throughout the day,” she explained. “So go from your house to the grocery store, and from your grocery store to the dry cleaner, and then maybe to the school to pick up your kids.”

Joy invites everyone to make one simple change to make Mother Earth a beautiful place for everyone to enjoy. “My message on Earth Day is: It’s Earth Day every day, right? We need to be stewards of our resources and care for our environment,” she said.

“We should all do our part, what little it is,” Hazard added. “Just to leave places that we visit better than they were before we came.”

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Experts Find Small Pandemic Changes Had Big Impact On Utah Air Quality