Monday, July 28, 2014

Air Quality App Puts Air Info at Your Fingertips

By: Philip Harrison

Wondering what the air quality is like today? Is it OK to exercise? Should you take transit to work? Thanks to an air quality app developed through a partnership between Weber State University and the Division of Air Quality (DAQ), you need look no further than your smartphone. The new UtahAir app delivers real-time air quality information to your mobile device—anytime, anywhere.

In 2010, Joe Thomas, section manager for mobile sources at DAQ and director of the National Center of Automotive Science & Technology (NCAST) at Weber State, suggested that NCAST develop an air quality phone app. We thought it was great idea. Our staff—Weber State students R.D. Hunt and Brian Magness, and Chris Woodhaven and myself—spent the next year buying phones and computers to use in developing the app. It took us awhile to figure out how to create programs for the smartphones, but eventually we got a prototype working.

We spent the next year creating an Android version of the UtahAir app, fine-tuning it for performance and aesthetics. We had several people from DAQ test each version and report back to us if they found any bugs. Folks from DAQ also made suggestions on how we could improve the app, which proved very helpful. Once we were satisfied with the Android version of the app, we started development of a version for the iPhone.

We planned to release the UtahAir app for both platforms just before the PM2.5 season began in 2013. We were pleased when DAQ was able to launch the app in November 2013.

R.D. Hunt, Weber State University student,
works on developing the UtahAir app.
The new app shows air quality levels for two pollutants, PM2.5 and ozone, in 11 Utah counties. Action alerts notify people when pollution levels are high. The app also includes color-coded health guidance from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Air Quality Index (AQI). The three-day forecast helps people plan their travel and work schedules during the winter inversion or the summer ozone seasons.

We were frankly surprised by the public response to the app. We only expected a few thousand people to download the app, but thanks to DEQ’s public outreach efforts, to date we’ve had more than 10,000 downloads for the iOS version of the app and 7,400 Android downloads.

If you haven’t already downloaded the UtahAir app, do it today! You can download the free app for your Android at the Google store or your iOS device at the iTunes store. Use the Action Forecast to find out about voluntary and mandatory actions, and check out the Health Forecast to help you minimize the effects of air pollution to your health. Don’t have a smartphone? You can also access the current air quality conditions, forecast and trends on DEQ’s website. For ideas on how you can reduce your emissions, check out our list of suggestions for high pollution periods during the summer and the winter.

I am an environmental scientist in the Air Monitoring section of the Division of Air Quality and have worked at DEQ for almost three years. I have an Associate’s degree in Applied Technology from the National Center of Automotive Science and Technology and a Bachelor of Science from Weber State University.


Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Telecommuting Boosts Productivity & Spares the Air

By: Debbie Parry and Marc Earnhardt

Editor’s Note: This is the fourth of a series of posts—published every Wednesday during July—of what DEQ employees are doing to reduce emissions during the 2014 Clear the AirChallenge.

It’s Wednesday morning, telecommuting day for me and Marc—both of us are financial officers at DEQ. We avoid the rush-hour traffic as we stroll down the hall to “his” and “her” work stations in our Layton home, ready for work by 8 a.m.

My work space is the kitchen counter where I log onto my laptop and with remote access can process travel reimbursements and other requests without having to step outside. Marc sits down at a desk with a computer, in a spare bedroom-converted-office, and accesses DEQ’s secure accounting information to process payments and approve billing.

This once-a-week telecommuting is fiscally and environmentally advantageous for us, and the State of Utah, too.

Consider the following benefits:
  • Telecommuting protects air quality by a reduction in vehicle emissions, the primary cause of air pollution. It also is part of DEQ’s trip reduction policy. Gov. Gary Herbert ordered all state agencies to have a TravelWise plan in place to allow flexible work schedules, so employees can take transit or telecommute on days when the air quality is deteriorating. (Roughly 10% of DEQ’s workforce telecommutes at least once a week.)
  • Telecommuting conserves energy. It cuts down on energy use in the work place. It reduces the use of office equipment and transportation, which requires lots of energy.
  • Telecommuting improves an individual’s health and well-being through lowering stress linked to compromises that are usually made between work and family. It also eliminates the stress related to commuting to work and offers a good opportunity for employees to enjoy their work. In fact, telecommuting gives workers a chance to carry out their duties at home without compromising both their job productivity and family living.
  • Telecommuting increases productivity. Employees usually spend most of their time on activities like commuting to work. Since telecommuting removes this particular necessity, employees can concentrate more on their work duties.

Telecommuting allows me time to focus on the task at hand, with minimal interruptions that come with working in an office. Marc and I feel very fortunate to work one day a week from home. It helps rejuvenate us for the days when we carpool to the office.

This month’s “Clear the Air Challenge” is all about reducing emissions through trip reduction like telecommuting. Visit to register and participate. And come back to this blog to join the conversation about telecommuting.

Marc has been a financial analyst for 26 years for the State of Utah. Debbie has worked at the Department of Environmental Quality for 27 years in finance. In our spare time, we like to garden, Marc likes to cook, and Deb enjoys arts and crafts. We also enjoy fishing and camping. 


Monday, July 21, 2014

Mercury in Fish: When Catch-and-Release Is Good for You, Too

By: Amy Dickey

Summertime in Utah means hiking, biking, barbeques, fireworks and…fishing! Warm summer days mean more folks are out fishing at Utah’s blue-ribbon streams, high-alpine lakes, reservoirs and urban ponds. Many anglers eat what they catch, which is a good thing, since fish provides important vitamins, minerals and Omega-3 fatty acids that people need for a healthy diet.

Unfortunately, when fishing spots become polluted, your catch may also become contaminated with high concentrations of mercury and other harmful chemicals. Fortunately, Utah has a statewide program that monitors mercury levels in fish and issues advisories to let people know when fish at a particular location are unsafe to eat.

Image Credit: Massachusetts Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs,
Department of Environmental Protection
Mercury is a naturally occurring element in our air, soil and water. Atmospheric mercury makes its way into water bodies through rain or snow (wet deposition), or the settling of gases and particles from the air (dry deposition). Other sources of mercury include storm water and industrial discharges. Bacteria in the soils and sediments at the bottom of lakes and streams convert naturally occurring mercury into a more toxic form known as methylmercury. Unlike elemental mercury, methylmercury bioaccumulates in organisms, becoming more concentrated in their bodies the more they ingest. Methylmercury also biomagnifies, meaning organisms contain more of the toxin the higher up they are in the food chain.

Mercury acts as a neurotoxin and has the potential to damage the brain, heart, lungs, kidneys and immune system. Pregnant women and nursing mothers are at risk because methylmercury impacts fetal development and passes from mother to child through breast milk. Young children are also at higher risk because their nervous systems are still developing.

Public health officials in Utah issue fish advisories when mercury levels in fish reach unsafe levels. These advisories provide recommendations on how much of a particular type of fish is safe to eat. Anglers can look up this information by county, waterbody, or fish species on the Utah Fish Advisory website.

The Division of Water Quality (DWQ) has teamed with the Division of Wildlife Resources (DWR) and Utah Department of Health (UDOH) to develop collection plans, catch and sample fish, analyze the data, and determine consumption values. Since the Utah program began, more than 3,500 fish have been collected from 280 sites throughout the state, with consumption advisories issued at 23 locations for 13 different fish species.

It’s important to keep in mind that just eight percent of the sites sampled warranted consumption advisories. So remember: You can eat fish—just choose wisely. Know the locations of advisories and the species they include. And enjoy yourself at your favorite lake or reservoir—there are no known health risks associated with swimming and boating in waterbodies with advisories.

Going fishing? Check out the state’s fish advisory website for more information on advisory locations, fish species and recommended consumption amounts. EPA’s Mercury website has additional information about fish consumption, health effects and the ways people can be exposed to mercury. In addition, the Food and Drug Administration recently issued Draft Advice on mercury levels in fish that can help you make informed choices before you purchase fish at a grocery store or restaurant.

I have worked with the Utah Division of Water Quality for 13 years. I have a Bachelor’s degree in Biology and Environmental Studies. When I'm not working, I love to get outside and enjoy all that Utah has to offer. I especially enjoy camping with my husband and two kids.