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Air quality improving, but smoke took a toll on upper Midwest

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Smoky skies in Minnesota
Haze and smoke from western wildfires obscures the downtown Minneapolis skyline on Saturday.
Evan Frost | MPR News

The air quality around Minnesota is improving, and state officials are predicting good to moderate air quality for the rest of the week. But it's been a summer of many air quality alerts, and doctors and people who are active outdoors have noticed the effects.

Last week, Anna Quanbeck decided to go for a run, routine exercise for the healthy 21-year-old from Roseville. 

"So I knew that the alert was expiring on Sunday, I think, but I just thought 'oh, Saturday evening, maybe it'd be OK by then.' But yeah, it was not," Quanbeck said.

Her 2- to 3-mile route started easy, then it hit her.

  "I started to notice that I was getting a pounding headache and it was getting really hard to breathe," she said.

Trouble breathing, headaches, coughing and burning eyes — lots of people out and about in the region have felt these symptoms. In Fargo, N.D., Sanford Health is seeing more people in emergency rooms and clinics with signs that the wildfire smoke blowing in from British Columbia is getting to them.

  "In fact I just finished seeing a patient who had a huge decline in lung function. He lives where the fires are much closer," Dr. Venkatkiran Kanchustambham, a pulmonologist with Sanford Health, said.

Patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and asthma are particularly affected by the smoke, Kanchustambham said. And the elderly and children should also try to stay inside when air quality alerts go out.

In St. Paul, Gillette Children's Specialty Healthcare pediatrician Dr. Madeleine Gagnon said her fragile patients may take more medication or need oxygen support at night. In a summer like this, with soot particles in the air, lungs get irritated and tighten.

"It's just no different than, seasonal allergies would be a trigger or a common cold would be a trigger," Gagnon said.

Kanchustambham said scientists are studying what repeated exposure to wildfire smoke does to people's lungs over time. 

  "Back-to-back seasons of wildfire smoke exposures, definitely over long term, that can definitely increase the risk" of worsened health for those with heart and lung ailments. 

But for people with normal lung function, he said, it's not completely clear how dangerous smoky air is long term. So, watch for air quality alerts and stay inside if you're in one of the vulnerable groups, the doctor ordered.

You can check the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency website for updates on air quality.