News & Current Events

Clearing the Air: Strategies for Parents to Cope with the Canadian Wildfire Smoke

written by ERIN CELLETTI
Source: Allie Birkinbine
Source: Allie Birkinbine

Right now, areas of the Northeast—specifically New York and New Jersey—are dealing with air quality concerns that are out of the norm for the region with smoke and smog due to the devastating wildfires in Canada. You can smell it and feel it in the air, with dramatic images capturing the blurry, yellow-tinted skyline of Manhattan or time-lapse videos showing the gradual worsening of conditions.

Outdoor activities have been canceled (including many end of the school year celebrations) and residents have been advised to stay indoors to remain protected from the effects of the poor air quality.

But aside from the more obvious warnings of “stay inside,” what do we as parents have to worry about? And what can we do to protect our families from these unprecedented issues?

We spoke with Dr. Lawrence Shulman, DO, FCCP chief medical officer, Optum Tri-State Region and Dr. Florencia Segura, MD, FAAP, board-certified pediatrician at Einstein Pediatrics for their expert insight and advice on navigating the poor air quality and how to stay safe.


Wildfire Air Quality Safety Tips


What is air quality, anyway?

The Air Quality Index, as explained by, is a measurement that ranges from 0-500. Low is “good,” and high is “bad.” Within the 0-500 range are six levels of concern: good, moderate, unhealthy for sensitive groups, unhealthy, very unhealthy, and hazardous.

Generally, a measurement of 50 or less is ideal, and anything over 300 is considered hazardous. The AQI measures, individually, five of the major air pollutants: ground-level ozone, particle pollution or PM, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, and nitrogen dioxide.

Yesterday, my zip code’s AQI for PMI (particulate matter) read as the highest it could: hazardous. Right now, it’s reading unhealthy. Both are unsettling to anyone, especially parents of young kids and those who haven’t dealt with wildfire smoke before.


What are the medical concerns when air quality is poor?

When air quality is poor, the highest concerns are focused on those who have established lung conditions. Dr. Shulman says, “Asthmatics or adults with COPD or other significant lung diseases may feel the effects of the smoke the most.” In some cases, elevated AQI levels can cause an exacerbation of symptoms causing, “coughing, wheezing, and mucus production.”

Dr. Segura says, “Older adults, pregnant women, children, infants, and those individuals with asthma and chronic health conditions (like COPD, heart disease, and diabetes) are more likely to become symptomatic if they breathe in wildfire smoke due to the particulates that can trigger symptoms and asthma exacerbations.”

She adds, “Children and infants are especially vulnerable because of their smaller lungs and organs.”


How do you know if you’re being affected by the poor air quality?

Dr. Shulman explains that, typically, you can tell if the air quality is affecting you if you experience coughing or a sensation that it is difficult to breathe, though you can also have nasal and/or eye irritation from the air itself. The best way to alleviate these symptoms? “Go inside and into the air conditioning,” he says.



Are there going to be long-term effects from this event?

Thankfully, since this is a temporary experience, Dr. Shulman says “there are probably no long-term health concerns,” adding “the smoke won’t cause a new lung disease but it could make a current lung disease, like asthma or COPD, feel worse.”

Though Dr. Segura says, “Long-term concerns are that these particulates are small when enough when inhaled to enter the bloodstream. Long-term exposure has been linked to an increased risk of stroke, heart attacks, and cancer.”

Thankfully, this is a short-term occurrence and the air should clear soon.


How can you keep your family safe from the poor air quality and smoke?

The best place to be right now is inside. Dr. Segura says to close your windows and doors and run the AC so that it is circulating air: “If you can set your air conditioner to re-circulate, even better.”

Updating the filters in your HVAC system can help, too. If you have one, running a portable air purifier with a HEPA filter and large fan is also beneficial for, “pushing the air through and  trapping particles.” She points to this Consumer Reports article for finding the best air purifier for wildfire smoke. (My Coway Airmega is definitely running overtime right now, and has been on all spring. Thanks, allergies.)


What should you do if you have to go outside?

If you MUST go outside, try to keep it quick. “Don’t go for a long walk or run, don’t exercise outside until the quality improves.” And, dig through those drawers for your trusty face masks. “You can wear a mask—either a surgical mask or an N95 works well,” says Dr. Shulman, while Dr. Segura adds, “The mask should have 2 straps above and below your ears to seal well.”

For those in the Northeast, it’s definitely weird out there right now, friends. But while it’s stressful and concerning, we can remember that thankfully, this too, shall pass.

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