Smoke from Canadian wildfires blanketed hundreds of towns across America this week, triggering air-quality alerts as far south as Minnesota, New York and even Charlotte.
Health experts in Charlotte warned on Wednesday that at-risk populations — young children, the elderly, and people with diabetes, asthma and heart disease — were at heightened risk of health complications.
Dr. Aaron Levy, a pediatrician at Atrium Health Levine Children’s Hospital and a member of the Mecklenburg County Air Quality Commission, cautioned that people in those groups should take extra precautions while.
In Charlotte, officials announced a code orange alert, meaning the city air was “unhealthy for sensitive groups.” Farther north, cities like Philadelphia and New York were under a code red alert, with air quality that posed a health risk to all residents.
“The lungs interact with the environment,” Dr. Suraj Arora, a pulmonologist at Novant Health, told QCity Metro.
Large particles from air pollution can deposit into the lungs and cause inflammation, aggravating underlying diseases such as asthma or causing coughing, wheezing and chest pain, he said.
Why it matters: In the U.S., smoke exposure from fires led to an estimated 3,900–6,300 respiratory hospitalizations and 1,700–2,800 cardiovascular hospitalizations, according to a health burden assessment study that looked at the years 2008 to 2012.
Since 2012, the U.S. has experienced smoke levels that exceeded any previously recorded seasons, thus likely increasing the health burden of wildfires.
People with lower socio-economic status, who are less likely to have insurance, are also at a higher risk of developing health complications from air pollution caused by wildfires, according to Levy.
Arora recommends checking the air quality index daily and avoiding going outside when the air quality index reads red or purple.
High-risk individuals should avoid prolonged outdoor exposure when the air quality index reads orange.
High-risk individuals should also take these precautions when exposed to wildfire or poor air quality days, according to Arora:
- Stay indoors and limit outdoor exposure.
- Consider using an n95 outdoors on red or purple Air quality index days.
- Those with asthma or COPD should have an asthma or COPD action plan created with their healthcare provider.
Levy recommends limiting physical activity and taking breaks often for those who can’t stay indoors.