Inversion. AQ index. Red days. No-burn. Please carpool.

Air quality!

You’ve heard the lingo on the news, you’ve seen the smog hanging over Salt Lake. It’s ugly, it’s unhealthy, and something needs to be done about it.


But where reasonable concerns end, alarm and misinformation sometimes begin. Is air pollution taking years off our lives? Is it causing asthma or birth defects? Is it to be avoided at all costs?

We know air pollution is bad, but we don’t know exactly how bad, so we assume really bad.

Relax. Take a deep breath (just one won’t hurt). Bad air quality is a problem, but avoiding it at all costs isn’t the solution.

Let’s clear the air (of common misconceptions, at least).


Myth 1: The Salt Lake Valley has uniquely poor air quality

Like most good myths, this one is actually half true.

United States air quality on February 10, 2016

This is a map from February 10, 2016 showing air quality across the United States. Northern Utah stands alone, the only red index in the country. So why are we calling this concern a myth?

Asia air quality on February 10, 2016

This is Asia and the Far East on the same day.

Now, certainly, comparing Salt Lake to Beijing’s notorious air pollution (458?!) is small comfort, but if you are concerned that our bad air quality  is uniquely severe, nearly half the world’s population might like a word with you.


Myth 2: Poor air quality is a leading health crisis

Nothing in this article is to suggest that bad air quality is no cause for concern. It certainly carries its dangers, especially for the very young, very old, and unusually sensitive. However, in terms of actual mortality, the World Health Organization ranks air pollution way down on the list.

WHO mortality chart

The leading health concerns are the usual suspects: heart disease, cigarettes, diabetes, sedentary lifestyles, and poor diets. Air pollution ranks number 14, down below incorrect breastfeeding and not enough fruits and vegetables. Many of us are worrying too much about poor air quality when it’s the unhealthy choices we make each day that are the more statistically valid cause for concern.


Myth 3: You shouldn’t exercise in air pollution

When we exert ourselves, we breathe more deeply. When we breathe more deeply, we take in more of whatever is in the air. It follows, yes?

Sure. But as we saw in the chart above, far worse than air pollution is physical inactivity.

“Current evidence indicates that the health benefits of being active, even in polluted air, outweigh the risks of being inactive.”
– Dr. Tegan K. Boehmer, Centers for Disease Control senior researcher

So if you’re skipping your run because you’re worried about the air quality, you are doing more harm than good. Even so, we agree that running in clean air is better than running in polluted air, so isn’t there still something you can do on those red days? Certainly. Some suggestions:

  • Run indoors, possibly at your local gym or rec center
  • Go up to higher elevations and get above the inversion
  • Download the myAir app, enter your stats, and get customized information that weighs your fitness level with the air quality on an hour-by-hour basis


Utah’s air quality can be bad. There’s no denying it. But by getting informed, we can rise above the fear and hyperbole and make decisions that will keep us healthy through those smoggy winter months.