Poor air quality returns. Region experienced three days in the red ‘unhealthy’ zone in June

Poor air quality returns. Region experienced three days in the red ‘unhealthy’ zone in June
This map of the mid-Atlantic United States shows poor air quality clustered in urban areas this week. (Photo/AirNow.Gov)

By Aaron Kopp | akopp@alextimes.com

The poor air quality that dogged much of the northeast and parts of the midwest early in June made a return visit last week. The air quality problems were again caused by wildfires in Canada, with roughly 500 different blazes burning in various sections of the country. High altitude winds carried smoke from the fires to the south and east. Over the course of hundreds of miles, smoke dropped out of the airstream, leaving a trail of poor air quality.

The worst air quality day was June 8, when the metropolitan Washington D.C. area recorded an Air Quality Index reading of 198, while the day prior it reached 176. The bad air gradually dissipated, with the week from June 21 through 27 registering six out of seven days in the “good” category. Then last week the AQI surged again from June 28 to 30, with readings of 131, 170 and 126 respectively.

The City of Alexandria has already had to cancel events, close parks and issue air quality alerts. Professional baseball games were canceled in Washington, New York and Philadelphia and residents were told to stay indoors on the worst days.

One way of measuring the impact this smoke has on our health and environment is through the Environmental Protection Agency’s AQI ranges from zero to 500, and is generated at more than 1,000 monitoring stations around the nation.

The components of AQI measurements are ozone, PM2.5 and PM10. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, it’s the smaller particles that are the most dangerous.

“Breathing in particle pollution can be harmful to your health. Coarse (bigger) particles, called PM10, can irritate your eyes, nose, and throat. Dust from roads, farms, dry

riverbeds, construction sites, and mines are types of PM10. Fine (smaller) particles, called PM2.5, are more dangerous because they can get into the deep parts of your lungs – or even into your blood,” according to the CDC website.

In a normal summer in the D.C. region, the air quality index rarely exceeds 50. Since June 1, there have been 18 days during which the air quality index exceeded 50, another four days when it was between 100 and 150 – and three days in which it was greater than 150.

Dr. Vivek Sinha, the chief medical officer at Belle View Medical Partners, talked about the danger posed by this smoke from faraway fires.

“When the air quality index is really poor, everyone should be on alert,” Sinha cautioned.

This is especially true of young children, elderly individuals and people with preexisting respiratory or cardiac conditions.

“I am seeing increased asthma and COPD aggravations,” Sinha said.

Unfortunately, the current air quality problems are likely to continue through the summer.

“Thanks to the ongoing wildfires in Canada, which show no sign of ending, smoky air is set to be a regular, periodic occurrence down here in the U.S. throughout the rest of the summer,” according to USA Today.

Sinha said people should self educate to help protect themselves from the effects of the smoke.

If possible, people particularly sensitive to poor air quality should stay indoors with the windows closed. When in a car, turn off features that bring new air in through the air conditioner to help keep unhealthy air out.

“Masks can help. The surgical masks and cloth masks won’t, it’s the N-95s that work. They’re not perfect, but if you have to be outside, wearing a tight fitting N-95 mask can help,” Sinha said.

More information about current air quality can be found at AirNow.gov