Canadian wildfires prompt US health warnings: U-M experts available


Michigan and several states have issued air quality advisories as hundreds of Canadian wildfires continue to burn, sending plumes of smoke across the U.S. and leaving particles in the air that can be unhealthy for people and the environment.

University of Michigan experts are available to discuss.

Stuart Batterman , professor of environmental health and global public health at the School of Public Health, is following the growing plumes and the unhealthy particles in the smoke as it moves across Michigan. He can explain how air quality is measured, the particles of concern in the air, and other related topics.

"I have been tracking this and much of Michigan has been experiencing air quality levels that are considered unhealthy,” Batterman said. "The most recent readings in Michigan are at levels that came as a big surprise. The levels increased so the air is unhealthy to breathe.”

Sara Adar , associate professor and chair of epidemiology at the School of Public Health, says there are precautions to take at a time like this.

"As many people in the Midwest and East Coast are learning right now, wildfire smoke can travel very far distances and impact large populations. To best protect health, people should avoid spending too much time outdoors right now, especially young children, the elderly, pregnant women and those with heart or lung disease,” she said.

Adar recommends shutting windows and using air purifiers. Air conditioning can be helpful to keep the indoor air clean, she says. And for those who need to spend a lot of time outdoors, an N95 respirator can also reduce exposures.

Paige Fischer is an associate professor at the School for Environment and Sustainability and lead scientist at U-M’s Western Forest and Fire Initiative. She studies human adaptation to environmental change, specifically increasing wildfire risk.

"With climate change and land and forest management practices that continue to exacerbate flammability, wildfires are no longer a problem just for people who live in fire-prone forested areas,” she said. "Smoke from wildfires is increasingly recognized as a major health threat. Now, both health-compromised and healthy populations are suffering the effects of smoke far from the origins of the problem. Wildfire risk has become a global crisis that requires adaptation across multiple levels (household, land ownership, governments) and on much larger scales than ever before.”

Mark Flanner is a professor of climate and space sciences and engineering at the College of Engineering and professor of earth and environmental sciences at the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts. His research covers aerosol-climate interactions and climate physics.

"Wildfires in Canada are producing harmful levels of particulate matter across large portions of the Northeast and Midwest in the U.S., with air quality indices exceeding values seen in many years. Cities like New York and Detroit currently have some of the poorest air quality levels in the world,” he said. "Unusually dry conditions, occurring quite early in the year, have enabled several hundred fires to flare up in Quebec and other parts of eastern Canada, with winds currently transporting much of the smoke southward.”

Richard Rood , professor of climate and space sciences and engineering at the College of Engineering, can discuss the intersections of wildfires and climate, and climate and society.

"The air quality all over the eastern U.S. is poor from forest fires in Canada,” he said. "In recent years, widespread reduction in air quality has been common in the West because of persistent drought and extensive wildfires. Though the East is less prone to drought than the West, all regions are likely to experience times of drought and wetness. And with drought, the fire risk increases. As the climate warms and the onset of dangerous drought quickens, the fire risk in the eastern part of North America is expected to increase.”

Francisca Santana is a postdoctoral research fellow at the School for Environment and Sustainability who studies the social and psychological underpinnings of behavior in response to wildfire smoke.

"Wildfire smoke is an important, emerging public health threat that can affect individuals and communities that live in areas with high wildfire risk, as well as communities far away from actively burning wildfires. In order to promote protective health behavior in response to wildfire smoke, it is important to consider both the information that people have access to and use, and also the social context that they live in. For example, I have found that social norms (i.e., the observations or expectations of people in your community) affect the ways that people make decisions about wildfire smoke.

"Social norms may, in some cases, motivate people to take actions-e.g., when you see another person wearing a mask outdoors to protect their health from smoke, you may choose to do the same. However, in other cases, social norms may discourage action-e.g., if you observe a neighbor outside gardening during a smoky event, you may reconsider your own decision to stay inside and forgo recreational activities outdoors.”

MeiLan Han is a professor of medicine and chief of the Division of Pulmonary and Critical Care at the University of Michigan Health. Han, who is also a spokesperson for the American Lung Association, can discuss the effects of poor air quality on lung health and other potential impacts on cardiovascular health and susceptibility to infections, as well as protective measures against negative effects of air pollution.

"Currently, air quality in Michigan is poor. Air quality is rated on a scale that runs from 0 to 500, with the higher the value, the worse the air quality. Anything below 50 is considered good,” she said. "Today, Ann Arbor is at 161, which puts us in the red or ’unhealthy’ zone, meaning even some members of the general public may experience negative health effects and members of sensitive groups (such as those with preexisting lung conditions) may experience more serious health effects.