I hear you. I never knew, nor cared, about air quality. And besides, it would take a lot for me to not run outside just because of hazy air. And unless it’s catastrophic, like San Francisco after the Camp Fire, I’ll admit, “air quality” is boring. If you would like the brief version of this information, check this out.
In a perfect world, the EPA would do its job regulating air pollutants. The appointed people running the EPA would be super smart and committed to their jobs. They'd have enough funding and support. The regulations would be smart and well-enforced.
Then, we, average people, wouldn’t have to educate ourselves about complicated chemistry. We wouldn’t have to worry that our run might harm our lungs. And sure, our individual actions to reduce our emissions wouldn't be pointless, but considering the sheer scale of ‘air’ as a resource in Earth's atmosphere, we need governments, i.e. equally large governing systems, to control the similarly large scale of air pollutants.
Are you bored yet? Hold on. Hear me out.
Over the past year respected friends have talked about air quality problems a lot. So, I’ve started to take note: If Jared Campbell and Luke Nelson are talking about air quality, then I probably should listen.
Turns out, the EPA does regulate air pollutants, but that doesn’t mean every city meets the standards.
An obvious ‘bad air’ locale is Salt Lake City (Photo above: NY Times). It suffers from nasty winter inversions. But the Denver Metro Area — including Boulder, where I live - isn't perfect either. Denver and the surrounding urban areas do not meet EPA standards for ground-level ozone. This is not good. This hurts our lungs and even our brains. But let's not get ahead of ourselves.
Here, I summarize air quality problems. If you stop reading now, just remember one thing: who you vote into office has power in regulating the quality of the air you breathe.
- What is bad air + why is it bad?
- Where is bad air?
- What can we do about it?
- What is RUFA??
1. WHAT IS BAD AIR?
There are two main culprits of bad air.
First: Particulate Matter (PM) Pollution
‘Particulate matter’ are little pollutants, like microscopic gaseous trash particles, and they’re classified by size.
• PM2.5 are tiny inhalable particles, with diameters 2.5 micrometers and smaller. How tiny? Our average piece of hair is 30 times larger than a PM2.5. Most of these PM2.5 form in the atmosphere via chemical reactions with pollutants from power plants and cars, like sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides. They can also be emitted directly from unpaved road construction sites, fields, fires, and smokestacks.
• PM10 are a tad larger, still inhalable particles. This includes dust, pollen, mold.
Why is PM pollution bad?
Hold your hats. Particles smaller than 10 micrometers, and especially smaller than 2.5 micrometers, can nestle deep into our lungs and even our bloodstreams. The science is clear and research continues to come out, elucidating more health impacts of PM pollution, including:
- • Premature death in people with heart or lung disease
- • Worsened asthma
- • Decreased lung function
- • Increased respiratory symptoms, such as irritation of the airways, coughing or difficulty breathing.
People predisposed to lung and heart problems, like asthmatics, are more susceptible to the harms, along with kids and older people.
Can you tell if there’s PM pollution?
Usually, yes. PM2.5, the really fine particles, are the main cause for haze in the U.S. This haze doesn’t just impact our health, but it also harms our environment. Some environmental harms include:
- • Damage to sensitive forests and farm crops
- • Contributions to acid rain
- • Changing pH of streams, lakes, and coastal waters
Second: Ground Level Ozone
Ground Level ozone means ‘tropospheric’ ozone, distinguishing it from the upper atmosphere (stratospheric) ozone. The latter is good ozone, which forms a protective layer that shield’s Earth from the sun’s ultraviolet rays. But lower down, ground level ozone is not shielding us from anything.
Like some types of PM, it’s formed via chemical reactions with emission pollutants from cars, power plants, and other industrial plants. Except ground level ozone is created when the pollutants react with sunlight and heat in the atmosphere. Thus, ground level ozone is typically a summer problem. But can still reach unhealthy levels during colder months and rural areas are not immune, as ozone can travel long distances via wind.
Why is ozone bad?
Like PM, ozone has been linked to myriad health problems. It contributes to:
- • Coughing
- • Pain with deep inhalation
- • Throat irritation
- • Wheezing and trouble breathing while exercising outside
Like PM, ozone especially impacts people predisposed to lung problems, and young and older people. And if you’re really hustling outside on high ozone days, you can develop problems even if you’re perfectly healthy. So for us runners, we should be aware of bad ozone days!
Can you tell when there’s an unhealthy amount of ozone?
Unlike PM, ozone is invisible! There is no way for us to eyeball the sky before our runs and know if the ozone level is safe or not. If you live in Colorado, you can sign up for a ozone alert system. Other states and cities have their own; just search. During the hottest days of the summer, we should get in the habit of planning our runs around ozone levels. I know, what a burden, but we’re talking about our lung health.
Environmentally, ozone impacts plants directly. When it enters the leaves of a sensitive plant species, like ponderosa pine, it can:
- • Reduce photosynthesis
- • Slow growth
- • Increase risk from disease and insects.
Overtime, this can lead to a loss in an ecosystem’s biodiversity. NO bueno!
2. WHERE IS BAD AIR?
We know Salt Lake City has nasty PM in the winter, aka pollution inversions. Denver has bad ground level ozone in the summer. Just yesterday, my weather app told me that Boulder had ‘unhealthy air quality for sensitive groups.’
Southern California has historically poor air, and then when you had particulate matter from forest fires, then a lot of the West will have bad air. Even a month ago during the East Coast's cold spell, Washington D.C. experienced an inversion like Salt Lake City.
I’m not going to summarize the entire nation’s air quality. What I suggest you do is Google where you live in AIR NOW and search for trends.
3. WHAT CAN WE DO?
We can vote for a President and for Governors who take air quality seriously. We can not vote for people who are funded by fossil fuel companies. A lot of publicly elected officials appoint the heads of environmental regulation departments, like the President appoints the head of the EPA.
It’s extremely important that the head of the EPA is not corrupt. Unfortunately, our current EPA is run by a corrupt man who acting on behalf of fossil fuel companies over American's health. The dude in charge of protecting the air we breath is trying to roll back car emission standards WTF. Andrew Wheeler, your job description is literally the opposite!
Sure, that’s a raw look at the current situation of our federal government, but that same structure goes to states. We elect our Governors and the Governors appoint the heads of state EPAs and Regional Air Quality Councils, like Colorado’s RAQC.
I never knew that it’s appointees who are making incredibly important decisions about our air (and water and environment and climate, public lands, etc.). That’s why it’s so important we elect smart people in the positions that are publicly elected. Cue 2020.
In your personal life, being smarter about your personal car usage is the biggest thing you can do to combat your personal emissions. Simple Steps Better Air lays it out super nicely.
- • Combine your errands, bike, walk, carpool or take the bus when you can.
Nothing we don't already know, but it's useful to hear it again.
Lastly, again, the most important thing is that people in charge of the systematic, big regulations are doing their job of protecting us. Because let's be real, even if we all biked everywhere, there'd still be thousands of power plants emitting pollutants into our air and consequently, into our lungs.
+ What is RUFA?
ACTUALLY, the last thing we, especially as runners, can do is things like RUFA! What is RUFA? Running Up For Air is a genius masochistic trail running lap-athon invented by Jared Campbell to raise awareness for air quality issues and to raise money for non-profits working to improve air quality. And to run a bunch, of course. This year's RUFA - SLC was a huge success.
There were 170 and 85 runners in SLC and Ogden, respectively. And it raised almost $40k (!!) for BREATH UTAH (non-profit working to improve Utah's air quality).
There will be a RUFA - Colorado on March 9th and a RUFA Chamonix on May 4th. Sign up for the Colorado event here!
Top photo: Andrew Burr, Patagonia
Last photo: Kyle Richardson at RUFA SLC 2019