Prove your humanity

Canadian wildfires have sent smoke into the United States in recent weeks. There is increased concern about what this will mean for air quality, especially as people spend more time outside during the summer. 

And this may be a long-term concern, especially since the conditions that spawned the wildfires could become more frequent with climate change. 

Dr. Stephanie Holm, an air pollution exposure expert from the University of California-San Francisco, says there are steps people can take to protect themselves. It starts with being aware of the air quality outside. 

“I think the key is that folks should really pay attention to the air quality index. You know, there’s that good range, there’s moderate, unhealthy for sensitive groups, unhealthy for everybody, and it keeps getting worse from there,” she said. 

The Air Quality Index is a metric for quickly assessing outdoor air quality, and is based on a values system ranging from 0-300. Anything under 50 is considered to be safe. Numbers 51-100 is considered the ‘moderate’ range. Anything between 101-150 is considered unhealthy for sensitive groups, and numbers above 151 are considered to be unhealthy to the general population. 

Wildfire smoke exacerbates the air quality and poses a significant risk for people with asthma. 

If air quality is in the unhealthy range, Holm suggests moving some outdoor activities inside. 

“If there are options to move sports to an indoor space with cleaner air, that’s always a good option to take. Certainly not everywhere has cleaner air, but indoor spaces can have better air,” Holm said. 

Holm recommends using an air filter with a Minimum Efficiency Reporting Value, or MERV, of 13 or higher for centralized air conditioning or heating. 

“That can filter out a lot of those smoke particles,” she said. 

Holm said children and pregnant women are most at risk.

“They have a higher what we call ‘minute ventilation.’ So that means that they breathe more air relative to their body size than other folks. You can sort of think of it as like always exercising a little bit, compared to normal, healthy adults.” 

According to the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, the long-term effects of being exposed to air pollution can lead to chronic obstructive lung disease, chronic bronchitis, cardiovascular disease, or lung cancer.

Holm says there are a wide range of health effects of breathing in wildfire smoke, some of which are not totally understood yet. 

She also expects to see a continuing trend of wildfires across the United States.

“Some of it is related to climate change and increases in weather patterns and rain patterns and such that increase the risk of wildfire,” she said.

Besides the MERV filter, she also suggested a High Efficiency Particulate Air or HEPA filter, a mechanical air filtration machine. N95 masks are an added layer of protection for those who feel they need it. Above all, Holm stressed that people need to be ‘smoke ready.’

“Know that it is entirely possible that there will be another smoke event, that you will have to deal with this again.”