Winter is fast approaching, and in Utah that means colder weather, ski season and holiday festivities. Unfortunately, winter comes with another not-so-exciting gift: the inversion. Even as early as October, the thick, brown blanket of smog sits ominously over the Salt Lake Valley. Provoked by the bowl-shaped topography of the Wasatch Mountain range, the inversion arises when warm air sits on top of cold air and traps it below. When this natural phenomenon combines with the pollutants of cities like Salt Lake, Provo and Orem, poor to severe air quality occurs. We locals are used to this and go about our days as usual, but maybe we shouldn’t. Poor air quality is an issue that affects us all, and individual actions by people like you and me have the biggest impact.

Sitting in a lecture hall at the University of Utah, my classmate wheezes through her breath. She just went to the doctor and they told her she has to take steroids for her asthma. After class, she told me that her asthma has only gotten worse, especially in winter months. Air pollution is not only a problem for people with respiratory issues like my classmate, but also for elderly, children and any resident living within the bounds of the air polluted valley, which is most of us.

If this still doesn’t concern you, let me tell you something that might: particulate matter 2.5. This is just one of the hazardous pollutants emitted from automobiles, small businesses and commercial industries in Utah, and it is so microscopic that it can get deep into our lungs and bloodstreams. This leads to adverse effects like shortness of breath, irregular heartbeat and even premature death by aggravating respiratory and cardiovascular issues. According to the American Heart Association, “Between 1,000 and 2,000 Utahns die prematurely annually because of air pollution.” This is the ugly reality of Utah’s poor air quality, but don’t let this deter you. For the sake of our health and environment, we must take action.

Start by carpooling, biking or taking public transportation. If you want to take a larger step, invest in a fuel efficient vehicle. And please, if anything, stop idling! In our homes, we can buy energy efficient light bulbs and appliances, replace 2-stroke with 4-stroke engine snowblowers, use natural gas instead of wood stoves and fireplaces, and buy less solvent-laden products. Finally, let’s continue to advocate for the clean air we deserve. Stay aware and up to date on air quality forecasts and helpful tips at the Utah Department of Environmental Quality website. Although winter air pollution seems like an expected annual occurrence, this does not have to be the case. It starts with looking out the window and knowing that what we see can be changed by our individual efforts.

Kaila Balch is a student at the University of Utah majoring in environmental and sustainability studies.