Officials urge Hoosiers to limit time outdoors as 'unhealthy' air quality plagues Indiana
Indiana, like many parts of the Midwest, is seeing some of the worst air quality levels in the world as a layer of smoke descends from wildfires in Canada this week. Local and state officials are warning Hoosiers to limit their time outside.
Experts say any air quality level above 100 is “not good.” So far this week, much of Indiana has seen levels exceeding 200.
“Past 150 is unhealthy for anybody,” said Sarah Commodore, Indiana University assistant professor of public health. “ It doesn't really matter whether you have health challenges currently or you don't. And so the best thing to do is to avoid exposures. If you don't have to be outside, please don't.”
Commodore said people should wear N-95 masks if they must be outdoors, and advises people to monitor symptoms of exposure to the pollution for up to a week, because effects of exposure to air pollutants is cumulative, not only acute.
She said if people must work outside, they should work in short shifts, to minimize extended exposure.
“Your body is fighting every time you're getting exposed to it, right?” Commodore said. “But it gets to a point, a certain threshold, where your body can no longer fight. You start to have increased oxidative stress, increase inflammation, for example.”
The symptoms of exposure to the air pollutants related to wildfire-type smoke include stinging eyes, wheezing, coughing, and shortness of breath.
Lonnie Fisher, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service of Northern Indiana, said the Canadian smoke is settling over Indiana because of high pressure forcing stagnant weather patterns across the state.
“Basically, what’s going on is, we have what they call bridging or just high pressure that’s kind of been parked across us that is keeping the flow very, very weak,” Fisher said.
NWS models show a shift in that high pressure could come late Wednesday or early Thursday. Fisher said that shift could be enough to push the smoke out of Indiana, but he said the state won’t be out of the woods if that happens.
“Until they get the fires under control, the threat’s always going to be there,” Fisher said.
Fisher said there is a chance next week for smoke to return to Indiana. But he could not say for sure if it would make the air quality as poor as it has been this week or how long the smoke would settle over Indiana if it does.
Air quality levels in Indiana, and specifically Indianapolis, weren’t just bad relative to other Midwest regions – but were bad even when compared with other parts of the world.
“Our air quality number for particulate matter is around 249 this morning, which is some of the highest levels in the world,” said Jason Puma, a meteorologist with the NWS in Indianapolis. “Right now the only city that is beating Indianapolis in this category is Dubai.”
Puma said the NWS doesn’t keep records of air quality levels – so it’s hard to know for sure whether this week's levels break any records.
“Most of us don’t really remember anything this severe as far as smoke and particulate matter around,” he said. “Most of us probably haven’t seen this before but there’s no particular record kept anywhere that we know of at this time.”
Wildfires’ link to climate change
Experts say the increase in wildfires can be linked to climate change. Recent studies have linked worsening wildfires across the west not just to climate change,but specifically to fossil fuel emissions.
Dan Cziczo, a Purdue University professor of atmospheric chemistry, said climate change has a strong link to an increase in wildfires – meaning there will be more days of poor air quality moving forward.
“I think the best estimates are we’re seeing roughly twice as much land burned on average as opposed to the historical averages,” he said.
Cziczo said wildfires also release carbon – meaning they can be part of a feedback loop where fires are contributing to climate change.
“You burn these things and that’s going to produce more carbon dioxide which is not helping the situation with greenhouse gasses any,” he said. “It is dwarfed in comparison by our power industry and fossil emissions. But it certainly isn’t helping.”
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Local officials adjust outdoor events
In Indianapolis, city officials Wednesday were advising residents to stay indoors and wear a mask while outside. All outdoor pools in the city are closed, and some outdoor events at parks – including Indy Parks Summer Concert Series – were canceled.
Fort Wayne groups also made adjustments to keep people inside. The Fort Wayne farmers market has gone indoors for their sales and Fort Wayne Community Schools suspended outdoor activities until the air quality improves.
Lindsay Trameri, with the Indianapolis Office of Sustainability, said the city declares “Knozone Action Days” when particulate matter in the air reaches unhealthy levels for at-risk groups.
“In 2012, there were 21 Knozone action days. That’s the most we’ve seen in recent history,” she said. “This year we’re already at 12 if you count tomorrow and that will be the second most that we’ve seen … and it’s only June.”
Trameri said as wildfires continue to burn in Canada it’s likely that Indiana will continue to face days of unhealthy air quality.
“This could be something we see throughout the summer which is pretty new for central Indiana and the Midwest,” she said. “It’s something we’ll have to change our routines for moving forward.”
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