With Canadian wildfires still burning out of control, air quality in the Baltimore region deteriorated this morning, moving from yesterday’s “unhealthy” levels to “very unhealthy” and “hazardous” readings – a shift residents could detect the minute they stepped out the door.
The sky remained a blanket of hazy grayness, but breathing the air – slightly metallic yesterday – was like inhaling a cloud of fireplace ashes today.
Air monitors in Baltimore and in central and northeast Maryland this morning showed Air Quality Index (AQI) readings in the 200s and in some cases exceeding 300 – the equivalent of smoking a cigarette every 10 minutes.
Measured on a scale from 0 to 500, AQI approximates the air quality in a particular region compared to state and federal air quality standards.
An AQI of 100 is acceptable. Anything above 100 means sensitive groups – such as children and those with respiratory issues – may suffer more serious health effects.
The higher the AQI, the more serious the health impacts. Levels above 300 are considered emergency conditions.
Outdoor Activities Canceled
By this afternoon, the air quality improved slightly.
But with the Baltimore’s AQI still at an unhealthy 170 – and the sky still a blanket of gray – city officials took a number of precautions:
• The Recreation and Parks Department canceled all outdoor activities and closed public swimming pools.
• Residents were advised to stay inside and, if they need to go out, to wear a N-95 or KN-95 face mask.
• People in need of shelter were offered space at My Sister’s Place Women’s Center at 17 West Franklin Street, Beans and Bread, 402 South Bond Street, and the Franciscan Center at 101 West 23rd Street.
• Children, teens, older adults and those with respiratory illness were advised to avoid strenuous activities and try to stay indoors
“This is a highly unusual air pollution event,” said Jay Apperson, spokesman for the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE).
“Maryland’s air quality has been affected by wildfires in other areas, including Canada, in the past, but not at these levels.”
Push from the Jet Stream
According to Lisa Polyak, a Supervisory Environmental Engineer with the Army Public Health Center in Aberdeen, one factor making the smoke from the Canadian fires so concentrated on the East Coast is the jet stream.
A narrow band of strong wind found in the upper layers of the atmosphere, the jet stream is responsible for forcing the smoke back down to the United States, trapping New York City and other parts of the mid-Atlantic with especially high concentrations of bad air.
The pollutant of most concern in wildfire smoke is fine particulate matter, or PM2.5.
“The difference is that the wildfire smoke that is generated at the lower latitudes in California isn’t so much affected by the jet stream, but when it is, it gets pushed across the country to the mid-Atlantic states or the Northeast,” she said.
The pollutant of most concern in wildfire smoke is fine particulate matter, or PM2.5. Unlike other pollutants, PM2.5 particles can travel deeply through the body and affect respiratory functions.
“These particles are able to defeat the body’s normal clearance mechanisms, and can get lodged in the deep recesses of the lung, sometimes even crossing into the bloodstream,” Polyak explained.
Experts say the particles from forest fires are particularly dangerous for those with preexisting respiratory conditions, including asthma.
“As fine particulate matter increases, we see more hospitalizations, in particular when you look at children,” said Dr. William Checkley, an expert in pulmonary and critical care medicine at Johns Hopkins University.
One study found that among asthmatic youth in San Diego, wildfire smoke resulted in higher hospitalization rates than other smoke sources.
“A 10 microgram-per-cubic-meter increase in particulate matter from non-smoke sources was associated with about a 3.7% increase in emergency department and urgent care visits,” Checkley noted.
“Whereas, if you contrast that against wildfire smoke,” he continued, “the increase in emergency department and urgent care visits increase by about 30%. So it’s a big difference.”
Amid a plume of unhealthy Code Red air from Canada, Baltimore health officials recommended those working outside to wear masks. These workers clearing brush at Druid Lake yesterday had neck gaiters. (Fern Shen)
According to a 2020 study by Sarah LaFave of Johns Hopkins University, 20% of Baltimore youth have been diagnosed with asthma. This is more than double the national rate of 9%.
But children are not the only group affected by breathing in wildfire smoke.
“This level of exposure can have significant health consequences across the lifespan,” Checkley cautioned.
“You see an increase in the risk of cardiovascular disease, heart attacks, heart failure. And these increases range anywhere from 12% in all cardiovascular causes to 42% in heart attacks.”