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On the afternoon of June 7, a blanket of heavy, hazy orange smoke stretched across New York City skies. That day, the city’s air pollution reached the worst levels in the world as wildfire smoke from Quebec, Canada, spread across the United States’ Northeast. East Coasters were told to stay indoors as much as possible and to wear N95 masks to protect themselves from the poor air quality. And while West Coasters have become familiar with air pollution, wildfire smoke, how to protect themselves from the effects, the severity of the crisis and its unprecedented nature surprised East Coasters.

It was a wake-up call: “This is a good lesson that the air around us has a pretty big influence on our health,” says Susan Anenberg, PhD, professor and chair of the Environmental and Occupational Health Department at the George Washington University Milken Institute School of Public Health. “Every day we have air pollution from a variety of sources, and while we have experienced declining air pollution levels across the U.S. over the last couple of decades, those declines might be stagnating as we are starting to experience more wildfires,” she adds. “Our air quality is still associated with health effects at levels that we experience each day in the United States—and it could get worse in the future with climate change.”

Read on to learn more about air pollution, wildfire smoke, and how to protect yourself when air quality is poor where you live. 

Why did this happen, and why is it happening more often?

While Canada usually experiences severe wildfires during the summer, this year is expected to be its worst ever

“Air does not respect state boundaries or country boundaries,” Anenberg says. “This is the typical direction of air movement, from the west to the east. And when you get meteorological conditions like what we had, with a low pressure system over Nova Scotia, that air direction can change and bring smoke from Canada, from the eastern part of Canada, down to the East Coast of the U.S.” 

As climate change makes the Earth warmer, wildfire season becomes more severe

“As the temperatures warm, we’re experiencing more fire weather, where all you need is a spark, which could come from a lightning strike or a discarded cigarette or sparking power lines, to ignite an out-of-control fire, so we’re experiencing more of those fire weather conditions,” she adds.

How does air pollution affect our health?

According to the CDC, smog from ground-level ozone (an air pollutant) is associated with diminished lung function, an increase in emergency room visits for asthma, and an increase in premature deaths. Meanwhile, exposure to wildfire smoke specifically—which contains particulate matter (solid particles like dust, smoke, soot, or dirt), volatile organic compounds, and carbon monoxide—can increase respiratory and cardiovascular hospitalizations; respiratory infections; and the need to take medication for things like chest pain, asthma, and bronchitis. 

Some particles from pollutants, like particulate matter 2.5 (PM2.5), are 2.5 micrometers or smaller in diameter, which is smaller than the width of a human hair, says Anenberg. She explains that they “can penetrate really deep into our lungs, get into the alveolar region of our lungs, and even cross into the bloodstream, and as a result, affect every organ in the body. So these particles, PM2.5, are associated with respiratory disease, cardiovascular disease, lung cancer, neurological effects, pregnancy and birth outcomes, and even early death.”

Inhaling wildfire smoke also has immediate side effects that, according to the CDC, include the following:

  • Coughing
  • Trouble breathing
  • Wheezing
  • Asthma attacks
  • Stinging eyes
  • Scratchy throat
  • Runny nose
  • Irritated sinuses
  • Headaches
  • Tiredness
  • Chest pain
  • Fast heartbeat

The longer you’re exposed, the worse the health outcomes are, says Anenberg. And some people are more vulnerable to air pollutants, including children, older adults, people with preexisting heart and lung disease, and pregnant people. 

How do I know what the air quality is where I live? 

To take the necessary precautions, it’s important to be aware of the air quality—much like you’d be aware of the weather—where you live. You can do this by checking the air quality index (AQI) in your area. 

This color-coded index communicates whether air quality is healthy or unhealthy for you, according to AirNow, a government site that provides air quality data. You can find the AQI (and the PM2.5 concentration) where you live by visiting AirNow.gov, using the website’s mobile app, air quality app like IQAir AirVisual, typing “AQI” into your search bar, or checking your smart phone’s weather app. 

The higher the AQI, the greater the air pollution and, thus, the health concern. 

For instance, an AQI of 201-300 is purple, a category considered “very unhealthy.” This means that the risk of health effects is increased for everyone. 

In the table below, you can see what each color and range means: 

How can I protect myself from air pollution and wildfire smoke?

When the air quality in your area is poor (especially between “unhealthy” and “hazardous” levels), the following are some things you can do to stay safe: 

  • Stay indoors with your windows closed. 
  • If you have one, run an air purifier or air filtration system inside your house.  
  • If you have to go outside, wear an N95 mask to reduce exposure to particles.
  • If you work outside, Anenberg says, take breaks indoors in a place where you can lower your exposure and reduce your level of exertion during the activity.
  • If you have a pet, keep them indoors as much as possible, too. If you have to take them outside, reduce the length of time you and they spend outdoors. 
  • If you run your AC, Anenberg recommends setting it to recirculation mode to reduce the amount of exterior air coming indoors.