Canadian Wildfires and How To Protect Your Health

Posted in: Employee Benefits

Smoke from the Canadian Wildfires have been moving into the United States since last month and decreasing the air quality. There are fires in all of Canada’s 10 provinces and territories, with Quebec being the worst. The fires in Quebec were caused by lightning, but those in Alberta, they aren’t sure of the cause. In a normal season, about half of Canada’s wildfires are started by “dry thunderstorms” / lightning and account for 85% of the destruction. The other half are caused by humans.

The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued poor air quality alerts for New England, Illinois, Wisconsin, and Minnesota starting as early as June 1. The effects of the wildfires have been felt as far south as Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Virginia. When assessing air quality, the EPA looks at many factors. One of which is fine-particle pollution which is known as PM2.5. In the upper airways of our lungs, we have the ability to trap large particles to keep them from getting into the lungs. The PM2.5 is too small and can pass through and get into the lungs causing inflammation and irritation.

What is the Air Quality Index (AQI)?

The Air Quality Index (AQI) is the measuring system used by the EPA to communicate how safe the air is. Air quality is measured using a scale from 0-500, the lower number indicates the better air quality. The numerical system is broken into color-coding to make it easier for people to understand.

  • 0 – 50: Green – Good air quality
  • 51-100: Yellow – Moderate air quality
  • 101-150: Orange – Unhealthy for certain groups
  • 151-200 – Red – Unhealthy
  • 201-300 – Purple – Very unhealthy
  • Above 301 – Maroon – Hazardous

What are the Symptoms of Smoke Exposure?

The smoke from the wildfires can irritate your eyes, nose, throat, and lungs. It can cause:

  • Cough
  • Scratchy throat
  • Runny nose
  • Stinging eyes
  • Irritated sinuses
  • Headache
  • Wheezing and shortness of breath.

Inhaling it can cause your heart to work harder which will increase your pulse and may cause chest pain.

Who Should be Careful?

We all should be careful. Exposure to fine particle pollution can affect each of us. Inhaling bad air is like breathing in concentrated cigarette smoke. Those in higher risk groups (chronic lung condition, heart disease, older adults, elderly) are at an elevated risk.

And don’t forget about your pets, they too are at risk! Keep them hydrated and limit outdoor activity.

What Can I Do?

In addition, stay inside as much as possible. Put off exercising outdoors until the air quality improves. Keep your doors, windows and fireplaces shut. Run your air conditioning on a recirculation setting. If you have filters on your HVAC system, make sure they are up to date and high quality. Finally, if you intend to spend long periods of time outdoors, consider wearing a N-95 masks.

When Will the Skies Clear?

The Atlantic Coast will see some improvement Friday and this weekend. The winds will shift thereby blowing the smoke towards southern Ontario, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. While the Atlantic Coast will improve, the air quality around Pittsburgh, Cleveland, and Detroit could deteriorate. For other parts of the country, it could be until next week when the smoke is blown away and the air quality noticeably improves. A significant shift in the weather pattern is expected early next week, as a storm is expected to form over the Midwest which will blow the smoke back into Canada.

Resources to Monitor This Event

The EPA’s Air Now program has developed a comprehensive site where you can monitor your local air quality, and learn best practices for reducing your smoke exposures, and staying well during this event. Your local government should be issuing information to the public as well in accordance with EPA standards.