scorecardresearch Skip to main content

‘It can impact anybody’: Experts warn of health threat from Canadian wildfire smoke

The sunrise seen through hazy skies over the Zakim Bridge on Wednesday.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

Don’t be fooled into thinking the air here is not as dangerous as in New York, Washington, D.C., and other parts of the East Coast that are choking on the dense smoke from Canadian wildfires that is engulfing much of the Northeast.

Even the milder levels of haze wafting over Massachusetts and southern New England are unhealthy and pose a serious threat, health experts say.

The orange haze that lingered over the region, and brought the taste of campfire in the air, belied the danger posed by the smoke released by more than 400 fires burning in Canada, according to public health and environmental experts.

Advertisement



Even going out for a jog in Boston, they said, would be unwise during unhealthy air quality.

“You may say, ‘Look, I’m young and healthy. I’m going to go out for a jog.’ Your lungs will have a different view, because breathing in these toxins is going to offset any benefits you may get,” said Dr. Panagis Galiatsatos, an associate professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine.

“As a lung doctor, yeah, I’m concerned about breathing in these [pollutants] and the health effects,” he said.

Summer could still hold more hazy days and air quality alerts, experts said, thanks to Canada’s record-breaking onslaught of wildfires.

Wildfire smoke contains a mixture of gaseous pollutants like carbon dioxide as well as particulate matter containing dust, soot, and biological materials like pollen and mold spores. The small particles pose a risk because they are able to get into the deepest part of the lungs and the bloodstream and can cause systemic inflammation, according to Galiatsatos.

The state Department of Environmental Protection forecasted that an air quality alert will be in effect for the western portion of Massachusetts on Thursday, according to its MassAir Online website.

Advertisement



In those areas, the outside air is expected to be unhealthy for people with lung and heart diseases, along with those with asthma, children and teenagers, older adults, and people who are active outdoors, according to the state.

For the rest of the state, air quality should be in the good or moderate range. Moderate air quality is considered acceptable for most people, but it could be a health concern for a “very small number of people,” according to the state.

Those notifications came a day after the DEP issued a statewide air quality alert for Wednesday. The smoke and poor air quality curbed many activities, including outdoor fitness classes in Boston, according to the city’s Public Health Commission.

“We encourage people to stay safe and limit outdoor activity, especially if they have asthma or lung/heart disease,” the commission said on Twitter.

“Really, it can impact anybody,” said Dr. Sucharita Kher, a pulmonary and critical care physician at Tufts Medical Center. “People need to be vigilant, whether you are healthy, or you have medical conditions.”

She said that on Wednesday, she could taste the burnt smoke in the air — a sour note so strong, she wondered whether there was a fire nearby.

“It’s very real for people walking around the streets of Boston,” she said.

The US Environmental Protection Agency on Wednesday warned that wildfire smoke will linger in New England for a few days.

Officials said that, despite the distance from the wildfires, the unhealthy air quality was due to elevated concentrations of fine particles from the burn areas which have been carried by the wind to New England.

Advertisement



Those particles can travel a great distance. On Wednesday, unhealthy air was reported over a wide swath of the United States, reaching as far as North Carolina and Indiana; the pollution hit hazardous levels in central New York and northeastern Pennsylvania, officials said.

“Anytime we have these constant, poor air quality days — especially at such high levels — I’m thinking, ‘How many new patients are we going to have because of these exposures?’” Galiatsatos said.

Experts advised people to avoid being outside for long stretches of time, and if they must go out, wear a quality mask such as an N95 to help filter the air.

In their homes, people should use good quality air filters, keep windows shut, and set air conditioners to recirculate air rather than drawing it from outdoors.

But the impact of climate change, which is helping to fuel drier conditions and droughts, may mean the state will experience more air pollution from fires in the future.

“As climate change increases the probability of unseasonably warm weather, these kinds of air quality events are predicted to increase in frequency,” the EPA said in a statement Wednesday.

Francesca Dominici, the Clarence James Gamble professor of biostatistics, population, and data science at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health, said there are already signs that will occur.

“The scientific evidence ... has been predicting that, unfortunately, we are going to experience more wildfires, more intense [fires] with a longer duration,” Dominici said. “Most of the atmospheric chemistry models are raising the sense of urgency that these types of climate-related events are going to be more common.”

Advertisement



Dominici said she hopes the widespread health effects of the wildfires will help encourage people to work toward combating climate change.

“I hope that we’re really shifting the conversation from climate change being a problem in the future, to climate change affecting the health of our individuals right now,” Dominici said.

In Boston and beyond, there were signs that the unhealthy air had taken its toll.

Andrew Jarrett, a construction worker in the North End, said he’s noticed the “drastic change” in weather over the past few days.

“It’s been hard to breathe,” he said.

Morgan Forbes, a sales associate at an open-air stand near Quincy Market, said Thursday she’s been “feeling off for a couple of days.”

“I’ve heard recommendations that people should be masking outside,” she said. “I honestly just haven’t been home today to grab one.”

Rena Splaine, who had taken her newborn out to Boston Common for a walk in her stroller, said she wasn’t initially aware of the warnings about the unhealthy air. Splaine has asthma, she said, and had been coughing.

“I had to call my high school son and say, ‘What’s going on?’” Splaine said. “Then, he told me about the air quality alert.”

But Steve Prouty, who works from sunrise to sunset at Clover Hill Farm in Williamstown, said Thursday the air alerts had not slowed him down. The farm grows corn, soybeans, and hay and also has animals.

Advertisement



“I don’t let it affect my daily life,” he said.

Correspondents Emma Obregon Dominguez and Alysa Guffey contributed to this report.


John Hilliard can be reached at john.hilliard@globe.com.