Air quality in the upper Mississippi River Valley, tainted Thursday by north winds blowing in smoke from Canadian wildfires, worsened from moderately affected in the morning to just plain unhealthy by afternoon. By 6:30 p.m. the Air Quality Index (AQI) was rated at Unhealthy for Sensitive Groups.
According to the National Weather Service (NWS) and AirNow.gov, smoke from fires burning in Ontario — north of Michigan, Wisconsin and Illinois — is forecast to cause a mix of air quality conditions into at least Saturday.
As of 4 p.m. Thursday, the AQI for northwest Illinois and eastern Iowa showed pollutants hovering between the conditions of unhealthy for those sensitive to pollution and unhealthy for anyone in the population. The Sterling Daily Gazette reported that sensitive groups include people with respiratory conditions or heart or lung disease — as well as children, teens, and seniors.
Those at risk are advised to stay indoors or at least shorten the time they are active outdoors.
The New York Times reported that smoke from Canada fires is returning to smoke-weary residents of New York; it’s expected to be heaviest on Friday morning, but forecasters said the region would be spared the orange haze that settled last week, when a thick plume of smoke choked the air in New York City, delaying flights, closing schools, and sending people to hospitals with respiratory issues. The NWS said smoke had temporarily settled in the Upper Midwest, causing unhealthy levels in much of Minnesota, including the Twin Cities.
Accu-Weather reports said Canadian smoke is now settling across the Midwest; it had started to drift over Minnesota and the Dakotas earlier in the week, and by Thursday morning, wind had carried high-altitude smoke as far south as Oklahoma and east to Pennsylvania and New York. The worst smoke stretched from southern Minnesota to central Ohio, and emergency room physicians and nurses cautioned those at risk to stay indoors if possible.
“With the air quality at its current levels, we are beginning to see a slight increase in emergency rooms visits for patients suffering from respiratory issues,” said Sarah Alvarez-Brown, director of Emergency Services and Behavioral Health at CGH Medical Center in Sterling, Illinois. “On average, 20 percent of emergency visits involve respiratory issues and difficulty breathing, but over the last couple of days, we have seen this jump to 30 or 40 percent of visits. No matter your age — from infants to older adults — if you have a pre-existing respiratory condition, asthma, heart or lung disease, or you are sensitive to changes in air quality, you may want to limit your time outside or stay indoors, in an air-conditioned or air-purified environment, until the smoke and haze pass.”
Check AirNow.gov for updates; the maps are interactive and can be zoomed or changed by zip code. Air quality levels are updated hourly.