How wildfire smoke, ozone threatened outdoor sports in Utah this summer
The smoke-filled skies clogging lungs prompted a Utah university to take action, installing its own air quality monitor on campus to protect athletes as they practice and compete.
Drastic, episodic air pollution caused by out-of-state wildfire smoke choked the skies over Salt Lake City this summer, chasing people indoors.
It was so bad not only could you smell it, you could taste it.
Wildfire smoke in the West and ordinary everyday pollution are impacting the sports world as managers look to take care of athletes’ health and follow guidance from NCAA and policy from the Pac-12 on when it is safe to play outdoors.
It was in early August that wildfire smoke was so stifling it looked apocalyptic.
The Air Quality Index pegged Salt Lake City as having the highest levels of pollution in the world on that day.
That spurred atmospheric scientists and the athletic department at the University of Utah into action.
“It was so dark even going into the afternoon and we’re usually able to watch the sunset over the Oquirrhs,” said Daniel Mendoza, a professor in atmospheric science, pulmonary medicine and metropolitan planning at the University of Utah.
“The sun looked like Mars. We advised them (the athletic department) not to practice outdoors that day and that is when they said we really need to have dedicated air quality sensors at our facilities.”
The university had been relying on air pollution data recorded at a monitor at Hawthorne Elementary School in downtown Salt Lake City — about 3 miles away.
Mendoza said the extremely unhealthy air was an impetus to get air quality results on site to determine potential game-changing decisions.
It is not a situation unique to the University of Utah, or Utah for that matter, as states in the West struggle with more frequent cataclysmic wildfires that foul the air and persistent levels of ground level smog — ozone — both of which are extremely unhealthy.
Earlier this year, an Oregon women’s soccer match was postponed due to unhealthy air quality, and in Nevada and Idaho some college sports moved practice indoors. At Utah State University, when summer pollution creeped up to compromising levels, athletic managers — like others in the West — shifted practice indoors. All of this is based on sport science and regulations adopted by the NCAA.
The meter for air quality
The cutoff for the Air Quality Index, according to guidance adopted by the NCAA, is a reading of 200 to spur “serious consideration” for rescheduling the activity or moving it indoors.
Pressure starts to mount at 100 to move student athletes with preexisting pulmonary or cardiac conditions inside.
Weber State University uses air quality apps to constantly monitor conditions.
Weber’s Joel Bass, assistant athletic director for sports medicine, said this summer was literally a time for holding your breath in terms for health reasons and if sports were permitted outside.
“We have not had to worry about air quality very much in this area. I have been here 30 years and I don’t remember it ever being an issue, but it is as bad as I have ever seen.”
Bass said even if the Air Quality Index scores at less than 100, if student athletes are complaining of breathing difficulties they are moved inside.
It is a curious situation with athletes who are in prime, healthy condition but also are strenuously exerting themselves, gasping for air much like someone with asthma.
Breathing rapidly through your mouth does not protect the lungs like nose breathing. It’s a fact that has athletic managers wary and watching.
“We were up against the idea of canceling practices and we would have done that because it is definitely worth the health of the athletes,” Bass said.
Bass said the university pays close attention to temperature, if it is too hot or too cold, lightning risks and, of course, air quality.
“We have had to focus on it this year and we had concerns from those coming from out of state to play us because they were concerned about the air quality in this area. It was alarming.”
The University of Utah’s state-of-the-art air quality sensors parked on the roof of the athletic training center on campus allow Mendoza and others to track air quality conditions in real time. The sensors document levels of PM2.5, or fine particulate pollution, and ozone.
Gavin Gough, associate athletics director for facilities, operations and capital projects at the U., said even though there are sensors mounted on TRAX and in other nearby locations, the university felt it most prudent and helpful to get air pollution data where athletes practice.
The sensors remain in a trial run, having been installed only about a month ago.
Gough said over the summer, the university also had to cancel a soccer practice this year.
“Air quality is a safety thing for our athletes,” he said, adding that in California where there multiple universities that belong to the Pac-12 conference, those teams have been leading out on being proactive
Utah State University has a PurpleAir sensor on top of its Maverik Stadium that collects data that can be accessed at anytime. It was installed two years ago in an area frequently plagued by air pollution.
“During the summer here at USU, we started to take a look at the AQI when it was over 100. We moved anything that was over 150 indoors, oftentimes moving it in if we exceeded 125,” said USU spokesman Doug Hoffman.
Brigham Young University, like other campuses in the West, closely monitors air pollution conditions and follows national guidance on when to suspend outdoor practice or matchups.
Mendoza said he believes the on-site monitoring at the University of Utah will prove to be an extremely valuable tool, especially in the summer as ozone levels climb and wildfire smoke poses a threat.
In the winter when fine particulate pollution, or PM2.5, is an issue along the Wasatch Front and in Cache Valley, most sports and practice are moved indoors.
Pollution exposure due to athletic activity isn’t as big of a risk, but Mendoza did note there might be some utility in placing sensors in the canyons where winter sports dominate.
He said one already is in place at Mountain Dell, and he recalls a December when out-of-state wildfire smoke crept up the canyons.
Bass said the monitoring of air quality for the health of athletes is a case-by-case situation in which the university has to be flexible.
“I don’t ever remember it being an issue in years past,” he said. “Even if the index is below 100, if we have kids having issues, we are not going to go outside.”