Beginning in late-April, smoke pollution from western Canada’s wildfires drifted southeast—now largely impacting the midwestern United States and Great Lakes region. As wildfires grow in number and severity, air pollution levels increase and cause negative health impacts. With a careful eye on the Air Quality Index, weather, climate, and healthcare professionals make recommendations for maintaining respiratory health in the outset of environmental shifts.
AQI and Health Impacts
The AQI measures the level of the five major air pollutants and how each one might impact our health. Smoke from the recent Canadian wildfires carries pollutants into our air, resulting in higher AQI levels.
The physiological impacts of worsening air quality vary based on an individual’s health. People with existing and chronic respiratory conditions such as asthma or bronchitis may experience flare-ups at moderate AQI levels, but symptoms will increase in severity as the level increases.
Jay Sears, a respiratory therapist at Eskenazi Heath and respiratory therapy instructor, recommends that patients with chronic lung and heart conditions keep careful watch of their symptoms on smoggy days.
“They [asthma patients] can get exacerbated off of just small increments of low air quality. When we get to these higher levels, their lungs are going to sound the alarms,” Sears said. These alarms trigger inflammation, swelling, and phlegm build-up.
When experiencing these symptoms, patients should limit outdoor activities, keep windows closed, and if they do go outside, wear an N95 mask—which filters out 95% of particulate matter caused by wildfire smoke if fitted properly.
Individuals with chronic respiratory conditions are not the only people at risk as air pollution continues. Those without access to healthcare, do not have a safe indoor living space, or are required to work outdoors are disproportionately impacted by this element of climate change.
They not only suffer the impacts of air pollution, but the continued increase in the average temperature.
“These patients are going to have a harder time having a good quality of life,” Sears said, and recommends that these communities find cooling centers in their area for air conditioning and fresh air.
Sears also recommends everyone to check the AQI and be aware of how each level impacts your health. The AQI is available to check on any weather application, but the Environmental Protection Agency’s NowAir mobile app offers your location’s current air quality and clear steps to manage your day’s activities.
Climate Change and Taking Action
According to AP, July 2023 is calculated to be the hottest month on record. Over the summer, eastern Canada experienced levels of severe to extreme drought, increasing their time in wildfire season—sparking not just fires, but important conversations about climate change prevention and precautions.
“It’s important for us all to be more cognizant of things we can all do to combat low air quality,” Sears said. “Advocating for change at the state and federal level and regulating things that contribute to air pollution.”
Climate change impacts all communities, and solving climate problems starts with education—staying informed on environmental news and making adequate changes to your routine to limit contribution to air pollution. For example, you can follow these actions from the Environmental Protection Agency