Jun 7, 2023 Health Alert: Hazardous Air Quality Due to Canadian Wildfires

Air Quality Index

Air pollution caused by smoke from the Canadian wildfires that has drifted down into the northeastern United States is causing some of the worst air quality across the NYC metro area.

Kristin Fless, MD
Kristin Fless, MD

Currently, the Air Quality Index (AQI) in the region is being measured as “unhealthy” according to AirNow.gov, and the conditions are expected to continue into Thursday. Kristin Fless, MD, Pulmonologist at RWJBarnabas Health Medical Group and Maya Ramagopal, MD, Pediatric Pulmonologist at The Bristol-Myers Squibb Children’s Hospital (BMSCH) at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital (RWJUH) and Associate Professor of Pediatrics at Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School caution everyone, especially those in high risk groups, to take precautions to keep themselves and their families safe, including:

  • Staying indoors with windows closed, especially children, older adults and other high-risk individuals
  • Limiting outdoor activity to only when necessary
  • Wearing an N95 respirator mask outdoors to block fine particles
  • Use air conditioners and air purifiers in your homes
Maya Ramagopal, MD
Maya Ramagopal, MD

Who is affected most by poor air quality?

“Wildfire smoke emits various compounds, but of most concern is particulate matter (PM). PM 2.5, fine, inhalable particles, which are 2.5 micrometers in diameter, is particularly dangerous as it is easily inhaled into the lungs and causes symptoms like coughing, shortness of breath, and eye, nose and throat irritation,” said Dr. Ramagopal.

“Everyone should be limiting their time spent outdoors right now, but it’s essential that sensitive populations stay indoors as much as possible to avoid exposure to wildfire smoke,” said Dr. Fless. “Anyone with heart or lung disease, asthma, older adults, pregnant women, children and teens should limit outdoor activity and avoid any strenuous activity outside.”

What precautions should I take if I need to be outdoors?

“If possible, wait until the air quality improves before being active outdoors,” Dr. Fless stated. “But if you must be outside, try to shorten the amount of time you’re active or opt for a less strenuous activity such as walking over running.” She also suggests wearing an N95 respirator mask to help protect you from smoke and small air particles if you must spend a prolonged period outdoors.

How can I protect myself and my family at home?

“While at home, it’s important to keep the windows closed with your central air conditioner or window unit running,” stated Dr. Fless. You should also use high efficiency filters to capture fine particles from the smoke such as a HEPA filter. If you do not have air conditioning and it's too warm to stay in your home with the windows closed, Dr. Fless suggests seeking shelter elsewhere.

Also be careful not to add any indoor air pollution to your home such as burning candles or using gas, propane, woodburning stoves, fireplaces, or aerosol sprays. Do not fry or broil meat, smoke tobacco products, or vacuum during this time as all of these can increase air pollution indoors.

What extra precautions should I be taking to keep my kids safe?

“Children with underlying conditions like asthma and cystic fibrosis are particularly vulnerable to this current environmental problem. The recommendations are similar to those that are made for ‘at-risk ‘adults, and I would like to emphasize the need to adhere to your child’s medication regimen to offer the lungs the most protection,” stated Dr. Ramagopal. “Your lungs don’t fully develop until you are about 20-25 years old so it is vital that you protect children and young adults from wildfire smoke and air pollution as it may affect their lung development and put them more at risk for long-term health conditions. Don’t let kids play outdoors during times when air quality is unhealthy and have them wear an N95 mask if they must be outdoors.”

If you or a family member are experiencing any of the following symptoms that may be caused by wildfire smoke, it’s important to contact your doctor or seek medical attention:

  • Irritated eyes and/or sinuses
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Chest pain
  • Asthma attacks
  • Throat irritation
  • Coughing
  • Headache
  • Fatigue

To get in touch with a RWJBarnabas Health Medical Group provider visit rwjbh.org/medicalgroup.