Wildfire smoke, air quality woes could become more frequent

  • Air quality levels in the path of wildfire smoke have been the worst in 25 years
  • Climate change increases the factors that can lead to wildfires
  • Fires continuing to burn in Canada could send more smoke to the U.S.

Traffic moves along Wednesday, June 7, 2023, in New York, amidst smokey haze from wildfires in Canada. Smoke from Canadian wildfires poured into the U.S. East Coast and Midwest on Wednesday, covering the capitals of both nations in an unhealthy haze, holding up flights at major airports and prompting people to fish out pandemic-era face masks. (AP Photo/Andy Bao)

(NewsNation) — The haze of smoke drifting to the U.S. from Canadian wildfires may be unfamiliar for East Coasters, but other parts of the country are used to managing the impacts of fires. In the future, the problem could become even more widespread.

Dan Jaffe, professor of environmental chemistry at the University of Washington, said the levels of smoke and the air quality hitting the Northeast are similar to those seen during major wildfire events on the West Coast.

“In the last decade, we’ve been seeing this increasing pattern, about every other year, we do see days, similar to what’s being seen on the East Coast,” Jaffe said.

Air quality levels in New York have been the worst in 25 years, Jaffe said. That comes with serious impacts on people’s health.

Dr. Meng Weng, professor of epidemiology and environmental health at the University of Buffalo, said wildfire smoke is more toxic than the pollution usually found in urban areas.

“If people breathe in more of this air, it could immediately trigger some preexisting diseases,” Weng said, citing patients with asthma, COPD or other chronic diseases.

Weng warned that healthy people could see effects later on, particularly if they are exposed to the smoke longer, or if they are repeatedly breathing it in.

That could happen, Jaffe said, though he cautioned that it’s too early to tell if these kinds of fires will become a pattern.

“All of our understanding, our predictions about climate change, are the world’s getting warmer, forests are drying out. And those are definitely risk factors for increasing wildfire smoke,” Jaffe said.

The good news is that there are ways for communities to prepare and for individuals to protect themselves. Many of those measures are the same ones used to prevent the spread of COVID-19, such as installing air purifiers. Buildings that added air purifiers and upgraded HVAC systems during the pandemic are likely to find those same measures improve air quality during fire season.

For individuals, wearing a mask when one is outside for longer than a few minutes can help, as can air purifiers. Jaffe recommended a purifier for each room where people spend significant amounts of time. For those who are on a budget, he recommended DIY versions that can be effective.

“You can make a very good-quality air purifier for about $40, using a $30 box fan and a $10 filter. And those setups are actually quite effective, Jaffe said.

Even more importantly, he warned that being indoors means the air is clear of smoke. Jaffe recommended buying an air monitor to check the air quality inside your home.

The smoke is expected to begin clearing over the weekend, but that doesn’t mean the East Coast is quite out of the woods yet. It also doesn’t mean people in the rest of the country can rest easy since the smoke isn’t currently blowing in their direction. That includes the Midwest, according to Jaffe.

“The fires in Alberta are still burning and the fires in Quebec are still burning, and a little bit of wind shift could put you in the path of that smoke,” Jaffe said.


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