Smoky skies came earlier than forecasted, here’s how to stay healthy

A smoky skyline
Hazy conditions looking toward downtown St. Paul after the wildfire smoke moved on Sunday evening.
Andrew Krueger | MPR News

If you’ve been outside over the past few days, you can see and smell the smoke. An air quality alert has been extended through 11 p.m. for southern Minnesota on Monday.

We are under a “red” alert, which means the air is unhealthy for all. At one point, the entire state was under a “red” alert. Like last summer, the smoke is coming from wildfires in northwest Canada.

This is what the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency says you should do to stay healthy: Reduce outdoor physical activities, take more breaks and avoid intense activities to reduce exposure. Sensitive and more exposed individuals should avoid prolonged or vigorous activities and consider shortening, rescheduling or moving outdoor events inside.

David Brown is an environmental research scientist at the MPCA. He joined MPR News host Cathy Wurzer to share more about an early start to smoke season and how to stay healthy.

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Audio transcript

[MUSIC PLAYING] CATHY WURZER: An air quality alert has just been extended through 11:00 o'clock tonight for Southern Minnesota. If you've been outside, you can see and smell the smoke. We're under a red alert, which means the air is unhealthy for everyone. At one point, the entire state was under a red alert. Like last summer, the smoke is coming from wildfires in Northwestern Canada. Here to talk about staying safe during air quality alerts is David Brown, an environmental research scientist at the Minnesota State Pollution Control Agency. Welcome back, David. How are you?

DAVID BROWN: Good, I'm doing well. How are you? Thanks for having me.

CATHY WURZER: Good. Thanks for taking the time. So, gosh, it looks like we're heading into yet another summer, potentially, of smoky weather. Gosh, last summer there was, what, 21 air quality alerts? There was a news conference last week, where the PCA forecast did not as many air quality alerts this year as last. But it seems like we're getting off to an early start.

DAVID BROWN: Yeah, certainly. Based on the information that we were looking at the past couple of weeks, it did look like another above average fire season across Canada. But it looked like it wasn't going to start maybe until the beginning of June was really when we thought it was going to start ramping up. But then there are some isolated areas of pretty significant drought still, especially across Northwest Canada. And we had seen some fires really take off on Friday and produce a lot of smoke that eventually made it down to here.

CATHY WURZER: So what did you learn from last summer's experience that may inform this summer, in terms of the PCA's responses?

DAVID BROWN: Well, I mean, we now know that the wildfire season is starting earlier and earlier. And so we have to be ready for issuing alerts as early as May. It's pretty uncommon. But last year, we had one in May and now this year in May. So, we just have to be ready a little bit earlier to forecast these events and inform the public.

CATHY WURZER: So when you inform the public and you know that unhealthy air has settled over us, I'm wondering what listeners can do to protect themselves. What's your best advice?

DAVID BROWN: Sure. Especially when air quality reaches the red AQI category, that's the level considered unhealthy for everyone. And so even healthy individuals can experience some symptoms, to an extent. People who are most sensitive, including children, and the elderly, and those with existing respiratory and heart conditions, should take extra care to avoid exertion, avoid exercise, and avoid extended time outdoors. It's best during air quality days like this to remain indoors and keep your activity levels lower.

Even healthy individuals should limit their exertion and exercise outdoors. Because even after a period of time, healthy individuals can start experiencing at least minor symptoms from air pollution, like tightness in the chest, difficulty breathing, even itchy, watery eyes, and other symptoms that may present more like or seem more like allergies.

CATHY WURZER: I'm curious here, if you have to go outside, how long could you stay out if you are one of those individuals in one of those sensitive groups? Because some of us do have to get out there, might we mask, stay out for only a half hour or an hour? What do you suggest?

DAVID BROWN: Yeah, wearing an N95 mask can offer some protection from wildfire smoke particles, as long as you make sure that it's properly fitted on your face, there aren't any gaps between the mask and your face that would let air in. That can help a little bit.

Otherwise, keeping your heart rate down, keeping activity level low when you're outside so you're not breathing in so much of the polluted air can help too. But otherwise, when levels are this high, symptoms can be noticeable within a short time period. Within 15 minutes to an hour, some people, especially sensitive people, can start noticing the effects.

CATHY WURZER: If you're inside, obviously, I noted last night, too, saw the warning to keep your windows closed at night. What do you think about having an air purifier in the house?

DAVID BROWN: Yeah. So regular air filters that are part of our heating and cooling systems usually don't filter out all of the fine particles-- [COUGHS] excuse me, especially the really small ones. So having an air purifier can help. There are some other DIY air cleaner solutions that people can try too. Yeah, just being aware that, your regular heating and cooling system might not filter out all of the air particles is good to know.

CATHY WURZER: Final question here, and it would be, some folks think, some people think they're invincible. And I heard from several people last night, saying, I'm not going to worry about this. It's no big deal. I'm pretty healthy. However, what are the long-term impacts of sucking down wildfire smoke, for anyone?

DAVID BROWN: I mean, I think the long-term impacts are probably not as well understood. However, there are some components of wildfire smoke, some metals and such that might be considered more harmful long term. But I don't think it's really well understood how, long term exposure from several wildfire smoke events might play out.

CATHY WURZER: Can exposure to wildfire smoke trigger other illnesses, say bronchitis, asthma? Can it aggravate chronic heart and lung diseases?

DAVID BROWN: Yeah, it will. It will aggravate existing respiratory and heart conditions, things like asthma, emphysema, COPD, things like that. It can potentially trigger other serious heart conditions as well for those that have it. And to a lesser extent, it can cause other symptoms like inflammation in healthy individuals as well.

CATHY WURZER: And David, the air quality alert has been extended. Is that right?

DAVID BROWN: Yep. So we've extended it for about the southern one third of the state until 11:00 PM tonight. We're seeing, across Northern Minnesota, dramatic improvement in air quality overnight. But that smoke is still lingering over the southern part of the state and is slowly going to clear out during the day. But we can't expect complete improvement to back to healthy levels for the southern part of the state, until probably the end of the day.

And that includes the Twin Cities. Well, the Twin Cities will probably be the first area to see air quality improving this afternoon, across Southern Minnesota. But we just don't know how long it might linger at elevated levels. And so, yeah, we have continued the air quality alert for the Twin Cities in Southern Minnesota through the rest of the day.

CATHY WURZER: All right. David Brown, thank you for your time.

DAVID BROWN: Thank you.

CATHY WURZER: David Brown is an environmental research scientist at the PCS. You can stay up to date on air quality alerts, by the way, by going to the pca.state.mn.us.

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