Changing weather could send smoke from Canadian wildfires down to Atlanta

Experts offer tips to breathe easier in smoky air
Smoke from Canadian wildfires lingers in the air over downtown Minneapolis on May 13. (Jerry Holt/Star Tribune/TNS)

Credit: TNS

Credit: TNS

Smoke from Canadian wildfires lingers in the air over downtown Minneapolis on May 13. (Jerry Holt/Star Tribune/TNS)

The Canadian wildfire smoke hovering over the Midwest since Monday poses little immediate risk to Atlanta, according to Georgia’s environmental monitors, but changing weather could bring it to the Southeast in the coming weeks.

Canada is experiencing a second consecutive extremely dry year and it is also facing the reemergence of fires that smoldered underground through the winter, according to the Associated Press. Smoke from fires in British Columbia and Alberta reached unhealthy levels from Montana to Wisconsin this week, and began to spread south and east into the Midwest and Great Lakes region.

A low-pressure system and recent storm activity is preventing wildfire smoke from shifting to the Southeast for now, said Bill Murphey, state climatologist with the Georgia Environmental Protection Division (EPD).

“So far our monitors haven’t showed any signs of elevated particle pollution levels due to Canadian wildfire smoke, especially in this highly active weather pattern across the Southeast,” Murphey said. “Right now we do not see any impact. We have been lucky. … Transported smoke has a long way to make it to the Southeastern U.S.” But certain conditions could change that pattern over the next few weeks, he explained.

While keeping an eye on weather patterns, air quality experts offer a refresher on precautions to take should the changing conditions trigger a repeat of last year’s local air quality alerts.

Smoke from wildfires carries particulate pollution made up of tiny particles of solids or liquids so small they can be inhaled deep into the lungs and enter the bloodstream, potentially causing health problems. This type of pollution is especially harmful to those who are sensitive to respiratory and coronary irritants, Murphey said.

He suggested staying indoors in a well-ventilated area when visibility is diminished or you smell smoke. Avoid outside exercise, which further stresses the lungs, and wear a mask if you go out, he added.

Wildfire smoke can even irritate the eyes and respiratory systems of healthy people, said Nancy Nydam, spokesperson for the Georgia Department of Public Health. “However, smoke can worsen chronic health problems such as lung disease, asthma, allergies and increase risk of heart attacks and stroke. People with existing respiratory conditions, young children and elderly people are especially susceptible to health effects from this smoke.”

Older adults have an increased risk of heart and lung problems, Nydam said. “Children’s airways are still developing, and they breathe more air per pound of body weight than adults.”

Smoke can cause coughing, a scratchy throat, irritated sinuses, headaches, stinging eyes or a runny nose, she said. “People with heart disease might experience chest pain, palpitations, shortness of breath or fatigue. People with lung disease may not be able to breathe as deeply or as vigorously as usual, and they may experience symptoms such as coughing, phlegm, chest discomfort, wheezing and shortness of breath.”

Nydam offered these precautions to limit exposure to smoke should the need arise:

  • Pay attention to local air quality reports and news coverage related to smoke.
  • If advised to stay indoors, keep indoor air as clean as possible with windows and doors closed. Run an air conditioner if you have one but keep the fresh-air intake closed and the filter clean to prevent outdoor smoke from getting inside.
  • If it looks and smells smoky outside, limit outdoor activities such as exercise, yard work and playtime
  • Avoid activities that increase indoor pollution. Burning candles, fireplaces, or gas stoves can increase indoor pollution. Vacuuming stirs up particles already inside your home, contributing to indoor pollution. Smoking also puts even more pollution into the air.
  • Follow the advice of your health care provider about medicines and your respiratory management plan if you have asthma or another lung disease.

For more tips, visit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention air quality site.

To keep up with current air quality conditions in the state, as monitored by Georgia’s EPD, visit The Environmental Protection Agency also offers information on wildfires and smoke.