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Smoky Summer: Tips for WI Residents, Now and in Future

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Environmental experts said people living in places like the Midwest were caught off-guard this summer by smoky air from Canadian wildfires, because past policy efforts have improved overall air quality in the U.S. (Adobe Stock)
Environmental experts said people living in places like the Midwest were caught off-guard this summer by smoky air from Canadian wildfires, because past policy efforts have improved overall air quality in the U.S. (Adobe Stock)

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 Mike Moen, Producer

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Friday, August 18, 2023   

Air quality alerts have resurfaced in Wisconsin, with some areas experiencing the smoky air from Canadian wildfires.

Health and environmental experts say there are key things to know now, and when the patterns re-emerge in future warm seasons. The occasional smoky haze this summer has captured the spotlight as forecasters link the conditions to climate change.

Dr. William Ehlenbach, associate medical director for pulmonary and sleep medicine at St. Mary’s Hospital in Madison, said when the wind pushes smoky air down to Wisconsin, it brings along tiny inhalable particles, and on bad days, it can cause health issues.

“People who have chronic lung disease, particularly diseases like asthma, often have worsened respiratory symptoms when particulate matter is really high, when the air quality is poor,” Ehlenbach explained.

He noted the particles can get into your bloodstream, potentially affecting cardiovascular health. The American Heart Association said smoky conditions raise the risk of out-of-hospital cardiac arrests by up to 70%.

Limiting time outdoors and keeping an N-95 mask handy are among the precautions. Adding air quality apps to your phone and monitoring the index are also encouraged.

Tracey Holloway, professor of environmental studies and atmospheric and oceanic sciences at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a member of the group Science Moms, cited dryer and hotter conditions for what is happening in Canada. Consistent smoky air might not come around every summer, but she added the direct effects of climate change are here, and people should be ready to adapt. 

“Just like some years we’ll have more snow, moving into the future there’ll be some years that have more smoke, and some years that have less smoke,” Holloway pointed out. “People’s perception of what regular summer looks like may change, and may affect how people want to prepare.”

Beyond other precautions, she emphasized enhancing the air filtration in your home is a good defense. 

Holloway added even healthy populations can experience symptoms like itchy eyes. Meanwhile, she argued people can try to help reverse future weather patterns through the decisions they make today.

“Electric vehicles or cleaner electricity sources, and you know, moving away from fossil fuels; this is a win-win,” Holloway contended. “Because it makes our air cleaner today, and it is combating climate change over the next few decades.” 

Disclosure: The American Heart Association of Wisconsin contributes to our fund for reporting on Health Issues, Hunger/Food/Nutrition, and Mental Health. If you would like to help support news in the public interest, click here.