Wednesday, July 15, 2009
Thursday, July 9, 2009
Last week, during our tour around the Central Wasatch, Mags and I were lounging in the shade in front of a grocery store in Park City, when we saw a woman park her SUV in the fire lane. She got out and went inside without turning off her engine. The air quality Nazi in me took over and I got up to kill the engine myself. Fortunately I saw the two teenagers in the back seat before my hand touched the door handle.
I abruptly altered my course and pretended to look in our panniers for something important. The woman returned five minutes later with an iced cappuccino from the Starbucks inside the store. "Gee," I thought, "I hope she recycles that plastic cup, because she’s got a duty to uphold Park City’s environmentally conscious reputation."
I wanted to confront her about idling her vehicle for so long; to tell her she was getting zero miles to the gallon, and that her punk kids would be better off getting outside experiencing the real world instead of sitting in the air-conditioned SUV texting and zoning out with their iPods. But, as you might have guessed, I tend to get a little passionate about this. I couldn’t have that discussion without getting angry and possibly making her more apt to idle her vehicle in the future, just to spite Greener-than-thou freaks on bikes like me. I decided to write this blog post instead.
Why shouldn’t you idle your car? We’ll there’s lots of reasons, like it being a waste of gas and money, but right now, in the heat of the summer, the primary reason is ground-level ozone. Yes ozone, the same stuff that blocks some of the sun’s harmful rays in the upper atmosphere. Ozone up high is good. Ozone down where we breathe is bad. Ozone is a lung irritant, it makes us more susceptible to other respiratory diseases and more susceptible to allergens. It also makes up most of the smog we see over our cities every summer, like the layer visible over Salt Lake City in photo at the top of this page, which I took last Sunday. You have felt the effects of ozone pollution if you’ve ever felt like your lungs were sunburned after a hard ride during a hot summer day.
The cappuccino sipping, SUV idling, PC mama wasn’t letting ozone spew out of her tailpipe though. Ozone doesn’t work that way. Ozone is what they call a secondary pollutant, meaning that it forms in the atmosphere from the chemical reaction of other, primary pollutants. The reaction is faster in sunlight and in higher temperatures, but ozone only lasts a few hours in the atmosphere before it breaks down. In other words, ozone concentration is highest during the hottest sunny summer days, and drops off after the sun goes down.
The primary pollutants responsible for ozone formation are hydrocarbons—we call them Volatile Organic Carbons, or VOCs, in the air quality world—and nitrogen oxides, which we abbreviate NOX. VOCs come from lots of sources, but primarily from cars. NOX also comes from various sources, including cars.
Let me say this very simply: Driving a car causes ozone formation, which is smog, and idling a car makes smog for no good reason.
So what are we to do? I’d suggest the usual remedies if they would do any good, but I’m losing hope in Americans’ ability to alter their lifestyle for the betterment of all. I certainly wouldn’t ask you to sit in a hot car without air conditioning—that would be as unreasonable as expecting you to turn off the engine, park the car and walk inside instead of going through a drive-thru window, something that Melva Sine, president and CEO of the Utah Restaurant Association, says actually causes more pollution. Apparently, corporations like McDonalds have done studies that show it does not reduce emissions when customers walk inside, which proves you can do a study to show just about anything.
Nor would I ask you to actually drive at the posted speed limit as a way to conserve fuel because who am I to keep you from speedily getting to McCafé for an iced mocha? I wouldn’t ask you to carpool or ride the bus because then you might have to turn off your iPod and actually interact with other people—face to face. Finally, I would never ask you to walk your kids to school or chain your trips together instead of making separate trips for every errand, because you are an American, and Americans demand lives of convenience.
But what about cyclists, runners, kids, the elderly and everybody else
who still wants to enjoy the summer in spite of this corrosive air?
There is a way to avoid the sunburned lung feeling. Before you head
out for that ride or run in the middle of a hot summer afternoon, I
suggest you visit the website of the Utah Division of Air Quality,
select your county, then click on ‘Trend Charts’. The second graph
from the top on the resulting page is the current ozone concentration.
OK, the data is usually about two hours old, but that's pretty close to
The most relevant line for you is the blue circles. How far below or above the federal standard (the orange line) is it? More importantly, are concentrations going up or down? I would consider staying inside if concentrations are above 0.06 ppm and/or rising. In the graph above, which is from Thursday afternoon, the concentration at 1PM was 0.07 ppm, which is below the federal standard but still unhealthy. I wouldn't go for a ride until after 7PM on a day like today.