Why you should protect yourself from the smoky air

Smoke from wildfires causes thick haze in the sky
The buildings of downtown St. Paul are shrouded in haze caused by smoke from wildfires in Canada on Thursday, as seen from the High Bridge in St. Paul.
Andrew Krueger | MPR News

Minnesota's air quality has been exceptional for all the wrong reasons this week. On Thursday, an air quality monitor in Brainerd recorded the highest particulate reading ever recorded in the state, since the monitors were installed about 20 years ago.

"And then a couple hours later, that smoke moved down to St. Cloud, and we broke that record in a matter of hours — at like 422 micrograms,” said Nick Witcraft, an air quality forecaster for the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA). “That was quite impressive to see."

And those two recordings broke a record that was set just last week in Red Lake in far northern Minnesota.

All that unhealthy air is funneling into Minnesota from wildfires burning across the border in Canada.

And Witcraft says now another cold front is expected to move yet more smoke down to Minnesota, prompting officials to extend an air quality alert through Tuesday.

"And then after the smoke moves in, we're going to have a high pressure sitting over the area, and the smoke will just recirculate around for a couple more days,” says Witcraft. “This is going to be a long-lasting event and very impactful for a lot of folks."

Including his family.

Health experts say fine particles in the air can be harmful even to healthy people, but especially to sensitive populations — including kids, older adults and people with respiratory conditions, like asthma.

Canada Wildfires Minnesota
Smoke from Canadian wildfires is visible near the Harvest Fellowship Church Thursday in Sauk Rapids, Minn.
Dave Schwarz | St. Cloud Times via AP

“I had to keep my son out of lacrosse yesterday. He came home and he had to use his inhaler, which he rarely has to use. But I was like, ‘OK, this is affecting me now,’” says Witcraft.

A huge swath of north-central Minnesota, sweeping south to include the Twin Cities, is now forecast to have very unhealthy levels of fine particles through Tuesday — labeled as purple for the air quality alert.

Most of the rest of the state is included in the next level down, in the red, unhealthy level.

Dr. Zulfiqar Ali, a pulmonologist with Sanford Health in Fargo, N.D., says in those conditions everyone should be cautious.

"And especially people who are who have underlying preexisting conditions such as asthma, COPD or chronic lung diseases,” he says. “They are particularly at high risk, and they should be very vigilant and cautious about that in their situation."

He says children are at higher risk, as are pregnant women.

But Ali says even healthy people should be careful. He recommends not running or exerting yourself outside.

"You know, when you exert, you breathe almost double, or maybe get a 1.5 times of your normal breathing rate. And in this way, you will breathe more polluted air inside, and that will be more harmful," he says.

The fine particles in wildfire smoke are smaller than a human hair and can penetrate into the sensitive tissue deep in our lungs. And from there, explains Jesse Berman, an environmental epidemiologist at the University of Minnesota, they can make it into our bloodstream and get circulated around our bodies.

"So it's not as though people are just being affected with their breathing — these particles get into the body and they can affect your cardiovascular system. They can affect neurological systems. They can affect your kidney system. They can really have effects all across your body," says Berman.

That's especially concerning because Minnesota is experiencing more smoky days because of wildfires — in Canada, out west and at home.

Between 2015 and 2018, the MPCA issued twice as many air quality alerts due to smoke from wildfire smoke than in the previous seven years.

Berman, who studies how extreme weather and air pollution impacts human health, says climate change and drought are fueling bigger and hotter fires that are spewing more smoke high into the atmosphere.

"And the more of these wildfire events that happen, the more likely it's going to be that here in Minnesota, we're going to experience these smoke plumes from events that are happening hundreds, if not sometimes thousands of miles away."

Gov. Tim Walz met with President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris Friday to talk about the ongoing drought and wildfires. In a statement, Walz said climate change is real, and it's having a direct impact on Minnesotans' lives.

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