Air quality levels in parts of the US are plummeting as wildfires rage in Canada

Millions of people across the Midwest find themselves in dangerous air quality conditions on Monday as smoke from wildfires in eastern Canada wafts over the region.

Foggy skies blanketed a large swath of the country from the Ohio Valley to as far south as the Carolinas. Air quality advisories are in effect Monday in southeastern Minnesota and parts of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, as well as more than 60 Wisconsin counties.

The spike in air pollution comes from wildfires that have raged in the Canadian provinces of Quebec and Nova Scotia.

A swath of smoke from the fires in Quebec will continue to linger in east central and southeastern Minnesota today due to very light winds, the The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency tweeted Monday, adding that air quality is expected to improve in the evening as thunderstorms help disperse smoke particles from the air.

Canada is experiencing one of the worst starts to wildfire season on record. More than 6.7 million acres in the country have already burned in 2023, federal officials said last week.

In Quebec, an estimated 14,000 people have been forced to evacuate and more than 150 fires are still burning in the province, according to CBC News. Further east in Nova Scotia, officials said Sunday that a fire had been contained but a second, which covered nearly 100 square miles, was still burning out of control, the Associated Press reported.

Over the past few days, smoke from the wildfires has spread across the northeastern United States and settled in the Midwest. Warnings warning of high concentrations of air pollution have been issued in all regions, especially for sensitive groups that include children, the elderly and people with asthma and other pre-existing respiratory conditions.

Air pollution from wildfire smoke has become a significant health risk in the United States and is getting worse. Researchers at Stanford University have found that the number of people who have experienced at least one day with unhealthy air quality due to smoking has increased 27-fold over the past decade.

Small particles in the smoke that are less than 2.5 micrometres in diameter, about 4 percent of the diameter of an average human hair, are of particular concern to air quality researchers.

These are the particles that are small enough to breathe in and can cause cardiovascular problems, said Brett Palm, a scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado.

Exposure to this type of pollution can cause inflammation and weaken the immune system, particularly when the tiny particles enter the lungs and enter the bloodstream. Particulate pollution can increase the risk of asthma, lung cancer or other chronic lung diseases, particularly in vulnerable groups such as the elderly, pregnant women, infants and children.

Exposure to smoke from wildfires could increase the risk of respiratory disease. Increases in Covid-19 and flu have also been linked to smoke from wildfires.

Palm said the ongoing situation in the Midwest highlights the long-term risks of fires, particularly as climate change creates hotter, drier conditions that make these fires more likely and more severe when they do.

Over the last decade or so, these fires have increased and are having an increasing impact not only where the fires are located, but also far downwind from there, he said.

The US Environmental Protection Agency along with partner agencies such as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and NASA maintain an interactive map of air quality data called AirNow that allows users to see the locations of active wildfires and assess local conditions and hazards .

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