Midwest air quality plummets as Canada wildfire smoke moves in

Residents of Chicago woke up Tuesday to the worst air quality in the world.

Smoke rises from a wildfire approximately 10km northwest of the community of Zama City, Alberta, Canada, on June 11.
Smoke rises from a wildfire near Zama City, Alberta, on June 11. (Alberta Wildfire/Handout via Reuters)

Three weeks after smoke from Canadian wildfires turned skies over the eastern United States an apocalyptic shade of orange, the same blazes continue to cause unhealthy air quality in the Midwest.

Residents of Chicago woke up Tuesday morning to the worst air quality in the world, with hazy skies and the smell of smoke. Windy City residents weren’t the only ones dealing with the conditions; AirNow.gov showed other parts of Illinois as well as almost all of Michigan, Indiana, Ohio and Wisconsin and areas of Minnesota, Iowa, Kentucky and West Virginia affected.

The poor air conditions are the result of a wildfire season in Canada that’s among the worst in the nation’s history, with particular difficulties in the eastern province of Nova Scotia. As of early Tuesday afternoon, 488 active wildfires were burning across Canada, according to the Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Center, with more than half (259) considered to be “out of control.”

Smoke from Canadian wildfires creates haze in Chicago on June 8.
Smoke from Canadian wildfires creates haze in Chicago on June 8. (Jamie Kelter Davis/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

The smoke from those fires created hazardous conditions in New York City earlier this month, when the metropolis’s Air Quality Index spiked to 405, shattering the previous record of 279 set in 1981. On Tuesday, New York Gov. Kathy Hochul warned that air quality in the state could be dropping again soon, saying, "New Yorkers should be prepared for the potential return of smoke from the Canadian wildfires."

Fifty or below on the index is considered “good,” with any number over 100 considered “unhealthy” for sensitive groups, such as children or people with heart or lung diseases, and anything above 200 means that everyone is at risk. Tracking showed the AQI for Chicago, Milwaukee and Grand Rapids, Mich., all over 200 as of early Tuesday afternoon.

The National Weather Services Grand Rapids office extended its air quality advisory through Wednesday after the distinction of worst air quality in the country went to Grand Rapids for a period on Tuesday. Additionally, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources issued a multi-day air quality advisory Monday that lasts through Thursday.

When the air quality drops as it has for many in the Midwest, experts say prolonged exposure can be dangerous.

“The particulate levels are so high that even for a normal person without any underlying medical conditions, it can still be unhealthy and dangerous if there is long-term exposure,” Dr. Purvi Parikh of the Allergy & Asthma Network told Yahoo News earlier this month. “The longer you’re exposed to it, there’s more chance for it to cause problems. And what is happening with smoke is that these fine particles are able to get deep into your lungs, and these particles contain chemicals, pollution, carbon monoxide, that can be damaging to your lungs.”

A haze is seen over the Milwaukee Art Museum on June 27.
A haze is seen over the Milwaukee Art Museum on June 27. (Morry Gash/AP)

Parikh said that if you check the air quality and it’s at an unhealthy level, the best thing to do is to stay indoors if you can. However, she added, “if you absolutely have to go outside, we recommend wearing a mask to limit your exposure. And the medical-grade N95 or KN95 masks are best, similar to COVID times, because they reduce some of those particles getting into your lungs. But even a surgical mask or any type of barrier is helpful.”

According to IQAir, as of Tuesday the United States had three Midwestern cities that found themselves ranked with the worst air quality in the world, along with Dubai of the United Arab Emirates and the cities of Lahore and Karachi in Pakistan.