Canadian wildfires bring unhealthy air to New England this week
Air quality in Connecticut improved Thursday afternoon into Friday morning, as smoke from Canadian wildfires began to recede from the region.
Air quality alerts remain in place for large parts of the state through 1 p.m.
More than 160 fires are currently burning across Quebec as Canada could see its worst wildfire season ever.
State officials declared Friday an Air Quality Action Day, which means fine particulate concentrations within the region may approach or exceed unhealthy standards.
Try to stay indoors, EPA cautions
Air filled with fine particulate matter contributes to unhealthy air quality, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
"Hazy skies, reduced visibility, and the odor of burning wood is very likely as the smoke plumes are transported over the region," the agency said. "During the times that significant smoke is in your area, it is recommended that people with pre-existing medical conditions remain indoors with windows closed while circulating indoor air with a fan or air conditioner."
Smoke from the fires is elevating fine particulate matter in the region. Fine particle pollution can impact lungs and heart, which can cause breathing problems and aggravate asthma.
"When particulate matter levels are elevated, people should refrain from strenuous outdoor activity, especially sensitive populations such as children and adults with respiratory problems," according to the EPA.
Crops could sustain damage
Canada’s wildfires are bad news for New England’s summer and fall crop yields. That’s according to Shuresh Ghimire, a vegetable specialist and educator at University of Connecticut.
“Most of the smoke, it is not only carbon dioxide, it has toxic gases like nitrous oxide, high level(s) of ozone. When we see such high levels of smoke, the chances are high there is high ozone damage in crops,” Ghimire said.
Ghimire said the smoke itself can stunt plant growth, which was already damaged by a late frost back in May. But smoke can also deter bees from pollinating, which will also affect the crops that are flowering now and would be harvested in fall.
The good news is that although crop yields will be lower, the levels of toxic gases won’t be high enough in plants to hurt consumers. But he said some fruits and vegetables could have a different, smokier flavor.
Tips when outdoors
Ruth Canovi, advocacy director at the American Lung Association of Connecticut, said she hasn't seen levels of particulate matter this high in her decade-long career.
She cautioned people to stay indoors, with windows closed, as much as possible. Anyone who has to go outdoors should wear a high-quality, tight-fitting covering, such as an N95 mask.
"Numerous scientific studies have linked particle pollution exposure to a number of health problems," Canovi said. "[That includes] aggravated asthma, decreased lung function, irritation of the airways, coughing or difficulty breathing.”
These problems are more likely among the elderly, children, and anyone with pre-existing heart or respiratory health conditions.
Canovi was most concerned with the immediate danger of the pollution, but pointed out that particulate matter is a carcinogen, and therefore a long-term concern. Canovi said these adverse health outcomes could be a growing concern. As climate change worsens, wildfires — and the particulate matter pollution that comes with them — could occur more often, even on the East Coast.
This story has been updated.