Wildfire smoke and air quality: How long could health effects last?


While millions of Americans in the Midwest and on the Eastern Seaboard got some relief from the wildfire smoke from Canada, with more relief expected over the weekend, health experts warned that for at-risk people, some hazardous health effects may persist.

People with moderate to severe asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and other risk factors are used to checking air quality warnings before heading outside. But this situation is anything but typical.

Even people not normally at risk can have burning eyes, a runny nose, and a hard time breathing. These are among the symptoms to watch for as health effects of wildfire smoke. Special considerations should be made for people with heart disease, lung disease, and other conditions that put them at increased risk. Those affected can also have trouble sleeping, anxiety, and ongoing mental health issues.

The smoke will stick around the next few days, possibly clearing out early next week when the winds change direction, Weather Channel meteorologist Ari Sarsalari predicted June 8. But that doesn’t mean any physical or mental health effects will clear up as quickly.

“We are seeing dramatic increases in air pollution, and we are seeing increases in patients coming to the ED and the hospital. We expect that this will increase in the days ahead,” said Meredith McCormack, MD, MHS, a volunteer medical spokesperson for the American Lung Association.

“The air quality in our area – Baltimore – and other surrounding areas is not healthy for anyone,” said Dr. McCormack, who specializes in pulmonary and critical care medicine at Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore.

How serious are the health warnings?

Residents of California might be more familiar with the hazards of wildfire smoke, but this is a novel experience for many people along the East Coast. Air quality advisories are popping up on cellphones for people living in Boston, New York, and as far south as Northern Virginia. What should the estimated 75 million to 128 million affected Americans do?

We asked experts to weigh in on when it’s safe or not safe to spend time outside, when to seek medical help, and the best ways for people to protect themselves.

“It’s important to stay indoors and close all windows to reduce exposure to smoke from wildfires. It’s also essential to stay away from any windows that may not have a good seal, in order to minimize any potential exposure to smoke,” said Robert Glatter, MD, editor at large for Medscape Emergency Medicine and an emergency medicine doctor at Lenox Hill Hospital/Northwell Health in New York.

Dr. Glatter noted that placing moist towels under doors and sealing leaking windows can help.

Monitor your symptoms, and contact your doctor or go to urgent care, Dr. McCormack advised, if you see any increase in concerning symptoms. These include shortness of breath, coughing, chest tightness, or wheezing. Also make sure you take recommended medications and have enough on hand, she said.

Fine particles, big concerns

The weather is warming in many parts of the country, and that can mean air conditioning. Adding a MERV 13 filter to a central air conditioning system could reduce exposure to wildfire smoke. Using a portable indoor air purifier with a HEPA filter also can help people without central air conditioning. The filter can help remove small particles in the air but must be replaced regularly.


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