Air Activist: The Good Air Citizen

Written by Marjorie McCloy for The Catalyst Magazine, Jan. 6, 2013.

In late October I was walking in my leafy 9th and 9th neighborhood when my attention was snagged by a good-looking guy walking toward the sidewalk. He was carrying something, but since I was looking at him I didn’t notice what it was. Then he waved its long nozzle at me. “Jeesh,” he sighed, “how crazy is this wind? I blew all these off the walk just yesterday, and now you can’t even tell.” With a roar his leaf blower came to life, and he bent to his Sisyphean task.

As the dirty air closes in around us, it is time to consider our role in its production. From snow- and leaf-blowers to cozy wood fires to solo commutes for work or play, the unfettered lifestyle we have come to think of as our birthright may be doing us more harm than good.

CARS: What, When, and How

No one disputes the fact that transportation—passenger cars and small trucks, off-road vehicles, buses, transport trucks—is our largest single polluter. Federal regulations continue to force manufacturers to build cleaner automotive engines and fuels, and this has reduced pollutants tremendously in the last decade, with more reductions to come. But it’s hard to make headway against the ever-increasing number of vehicles on-road and off and our deeply engrained attachment to our cars. Ideally, we could all simply stop driving, and walk, bike, carpool, or take public transportation instead. But life gets in the way, and even the best intentions are hard to pull off in a culture that is so used to cars. So find yourself some low-hanging fruit—you can lessen your car’s impact on air quality through simple actions.


The age and type of car you drive is the biggest contributing factor to its pollution. The Clean Air Act of 1990 initiated “Tier 1″ standards for cars and light-duty trucks, and was phased in during model years 1994 to 1997. Stronger “Tier 2″ standards were phased in from 2004 to 2009; gasoline-powered motor vehicles that meet these standards pollute much less than previous models.

This summer the EPA proposed, and Governor Herbert supported, “Tier 3″ standards, which will further reduce emissions. Tier 3 vehicles will be phased in during model years 2017 to 2025.

The takeaway for you: Drive the newest, cleanest car you can afford. Driving an old beater may have merits, but when it comes to air quality, newer usually means better. Electric, natural gas, or hydrogen cars top the list (although such vehicles’ emissions get passed on to another site, such as a power plant or hydrogen reforming center), and some manufacturers offer gasoline-powered cars that already meet Tier 3 standards. Subaru, for example, sells several models with an overall rating of PZEV (partial zero emission vehicle); its exhaust emissions qualify as SULEV (super ultra low emission vehicle). Vehicles meeting these standards are considered the cleanest gasoline-powered vehicles available today, and come very close to matching the carbon footprint of an electric car.


There’s a time and a place for driving in most people’s lives—and you know best when that is. But imagine that one weekday a week you were forbidden by law to drive. Could you figure out a way to take the bus to work, arrange a carpool for your kid’s soccer, do your grocery shopping on a different day, walk to your haircut appointment? This month, challenge yourself to figure out how to live a car-free weekday. You may find a routine that you can deal with, at least during inversion season.

When you do drive, keep in mind that most of a car’s pollution comes in the first few minutes after a cold start, before the catalytic converter has a chance to warm up. So the more “trip chaining” you can do, the better; drive the farthest distance first, making your additional stops on the way home.

Last summer the Salt Lake Tribune published the results of studies performed from 2001 through 2011 showing that despite no-drive advisories, driving in Salt Lake City increased during yellow and red air days and high ozone days, especially in trips heading up our canyons. This makes sense—who wants to walk or bike in the midst of an inversion? Instead, we want to escape up high, to where the air is better.

Finding alternatives to driving on bad inversion days is daunting. But again, what seems impossible might, with a bit of thought and preplanning, be workable. Maybe not every day, but some days. And if you run into problems that the government could address—awkward bus routes/schedules; pricey TRAX tickets; inefficient public transportation to mountain recreation spots—let your representatives know. Ditto with your work—if flex time or working from home is the only way you can drive less, don’t be afraid to ask.


You know the drill; the important thing is to do it: Keep your tires properly inflated; avoid quick starts and stops; don’t skip regular maintenance; pay attention to your check-engine light; in summer, add fuel during the coolest part of the day; make sure your gas cap is on tightly; never top off. Bryce Bird, Utah Division of Air Quality director, pointed to the simple act of spilling gasoline as something that can add up. “For every ounce of gasoline spilled, the fumes are equivalent to driving your car 60 miles,” Bird said.) In addition, do not fuel your car on red air quality or ozone-action days. Watch the forecasts and plan ahead!

And no idling! If you are sitting for longer than 10 seconds, kill the engine; it is unnecessarily spewing exhaust into the atmosphere. That means in winter when it is cold, in summer when it is hot, in line for your takeout coffee, and—especially —when you’re parked in front of your child’s school waiting to pick him up. No idling! Don’t be afraid to approach the driver of an idling car and politely remind her of Salt Lake City’s law that restricts idling to two minutes everywhere but a private driveway (way too generous but better than nothing).

This list, by the way, applies to gas-powered lawn and garden equipment, boats, and any other engine. First, consider using muscle power to shovel, rake, or mow, but if you do need an engine, keep it properly tuned and maintained.


Next to gasoline-powered vehicles, wood burning is the biggest non-industrial contributor to our air pollution—a recent Nevada study found that 30% of its statewide emissions came from wood smoke, and various studies in large cities around the globe have found a 10-40% contribution to PM2.5 from wood burning.

There is no reason to think that Wasatch Front cities would be different. In fact, a study published by Kerry Kelly, a chemical engineer and member of the Utah Air Quality Board, suggested that smoke from fireplaces, wood stoves and cooking grills in Salt Lake City on yellow or worse air-quality days was responsible for as much direct PM2.5 as ve­hicles. Kelly’s study further showed that burning one woodstove for one hour spewed as much PM2.5 emissions as driving 525 to 1,150 miles.

The EPA agrees that the hazards from wood burning are significant. It estimates that the lifetime cancer risk from wood-stove smoke is 12 times greater than that from an equal volume of second-hand tobac­co smoke, and that burning two cords of wood produces the same amount of mutagenic particles as driving 13 gasoline-powered cars that average 20 miles/gallon 10,000 miles each.

This is because in addition to generating PM2.5 pollutants, wood burning releases highly toxic compounds, such as dioxins, into the atmosphere. And because the particles are so small, they are likely to be inhaled deeply into the lungs, eventually reaching the blood stream, where they can penetrate individual cells. The tiny size of pollutants also means they can easily seep into neighboring houses.

So as lovely as it is to sip a cocktail by an outdoor fire pit or a cozy fireplace, inversion season is not the time to indulge. (A small percentage of residents burn wood for affordable home heating; this is a separate issue.) Of course, wood fires are already no-no’s on red air-quality days, but the smart money says don’t burn from October through March. Just because the air is clear one day, we know where it is headed this time of year. Why add to the burden?

In fact, anything that burns releases PM2.5 and other toxins, and that includes candles, incense, and even the pilot light on your gas stove or furnace. No one is suggesting that we avoid these niceties, but it’s good to be aware. Even the smallest acts add up.

Myriad possibilities exist for reducing your carbon footprint, and each makes a difference to our air quality. Every time you reduce the amount of energy you use—by turning off lights when you leave the room, running the dishwasher only when it is full, keeping your thermostat low in winter and high in summer, line-drying your laundry, plugging your computer and TV into power strips that you turn off when not in use, shoveling instead of snow blowing —you reduce the amount of energy that must be produced to sustain these items, often by burning coal or fossil fuels. These are abstract ways to clean the air, but have just as real an impact as limiting the exhaust from your tailpipe.

We all want clean air, and we all want to live the way we are accustomed to. But the sooner we adopt less fossil fuel-dependent habits, the brighter our future will be.

Everyone has some low-hanging fruit—lifestyle changes that are fairly painless and easy to make. Start there, and the next thing you know, you will be reaching higher.

Inversion Survival Tips

• Know your air quality. Forecasts and action alert days are reported with weather forecasts on local television and radio
stations, and in both the Salt Lake Tribune and Deseret News. You can also visit to find the forecast and recommended actions, or download the UtahAir app for Android and iOS.
• Don’t exercise outdoors in bad air, even if you are not in a “sensitive” group, or you may end up in one. Head to the gym or to cleaner air at higher elevations (take the bus!).
• Report illegal wood burning. Call Department of Air Quality compliance at 801-536- 4000.
• Alert drivers who idle to SLC’s anti-idling law (two minutes max unless in a private driveway; 10 seconds is recommended for fuel efficiency).
• Wear a face mask while shoveling or performing other necessary outdoor tasks
• Improve your indoor air by running the fan on your heater 24/7; this will drive visible dust particles into your filter.
• The state legislature goes into session January 27. Offer suggestions regarding air-quality issues to your representatives (find yours at
• Visit the Department of Air Quality’s excellent website,, for information or to make a suggestion.

Marjorie McCloy is a former editor of Rock and Ice and Women’s Sports and Fitness, and freelances for many national publications. She lives in Salt Lake City.