Wildfires in Canada lead to air quality alerts in the United States, here’s how to stay safe

Canada is facing a series of intense wildfires that have spread from the western provinces to Quebec, with hundreds of wildfires burning. The smoke traveled across the United States, prompting a number of air quality alerts issued since May.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency issued a poor air quality alert for New England on Tuesday, a day after parts of Illinois, Wisconsin and Minnesota received a notice similar. Last week, US officials as far south as Maryland, Baltimore, Virginia and Pennsylvania said they were affected by the wildfires.

Here is a summary of what is being assessed and some suggested precautions:

WHAT IS HAPPENING?

Smoke from wildfires in Canada has been spreading to the United States since last month. The most recent fires near Quebec have been burning for at least several days.

The EPA said hazy skies, reduced visibility and the smell of burning wood are likely, and smoke will linger for a few days in New England.

“It’s not unusual for us to have fire smoke in our area. It’s very typical of northwestern Canada,” said Darren Austin, meteorologist and senior air quality specialist with the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management. But the smoke is usually high up and does not affect people’s health, he said.

The Quebec City area fires are large and relatively close, about 500 to 600 miles from Rhode Island. And they’ve been tracking wildfires in Nova Scotia, which prompted a short-lived air quality alert on May 30, Austin said.

WHAT IS THE BIGGEST CONCERN?

Air quality alerts are triggered by a number of factors, including the detection of fine particle pollution – known as “PM 2.5” – which can irritate the lungs.

“We have defenses in our upper airways to trap larger particles and prevent them from entering the lungs. These are kind of the right size to break through those defenses,” said Dr. David Hill, a pulmonologist in Waterbury, Connecticut, and member of the national board of directors of the American Lung Association. “When these particles enter the respiratory space, they cause the body to react inflammatoryly towards them.

Trent Ford, the Illinois state climatologist, said atmospheric conditions in the upper Midwest, creating dry, hot weather, allowed small particles to travel hundreds of miles from Canadian wildfires and to linger for days.

“It’s a good example of the complexity of the climate system, but also of its connection,” Ford said.

WHO SHOULD BE CAREFUL?

Exposure to high levels of fine particulate pollution can affect the lungs and heart.

The air quality alerts warn of “sensitive groups”, a large category that includes children, the elderly and people with lung conditions, such as asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

Children, who are often encouraged to get outside and play, “are more likely to smoke for a number of reasons,” said Laura Kate Bender, national assistant vice president, clean air for the lung association. “Their lungs are still developing, they are breathing more air per unit body weight.”

WHAT CAN YOU DO FOR NOW?

This is a good time to put off gardening work and outdoor exercise. If you go outside, consider wearing an N95 mask to reduce your exposure to pollutants.

Stay indoors, keeping your doors, windows and fireplaces closed. It is recommended to run the air conditioning on a recirculation setting.

“If you have filters on your home HVAC system, you need to make sure they’re up to date and of high quality,” Hill said. “Some people, especially those with underlying lung disease or heart disease, should consider investing in air purifiers for their homes.”

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Associated Press reporter Katie Foody in Chicago contributed to this story.

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