As “very unhealthy” air hangs around Chicago, residents have urged to protect themselves

CHICAGO For most of Tuesday, Chicago had the worst air quality of any major city in the world and it didn’t improve much until Wednesday morning.

According to AirNow, USAir’s official air quality index, the city’s air quality was very unhealthy at 8:30am. Another air quality monitor, IQAir, listed the city as the third worst in the world on Wednesday, behind Detroit and the United Arab Emirates. .

The National Weather Service attributed the conditions and poor visibility to smoke from wildfires that drifted in from Canada and engulfed large swathes of the United States. The service suggested limiting prolonged outdoor activities.

Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago

Argonne National Laboratory atmospheric scientist Scott Collis said smoke from the wildfires was also trapped in the Chicago area by what is known as an atmospheric inversion, in which temperatures rise in the atmosphere.

What this does is put a limit on the atmosphere. Meaning it makes it very difficult for smoke to rise, so a lot of that fire smoke got trapped under that inversion that actually caused this, Collis said. If I look out the window right now, you’d swear it was overcast, but there are actually no clouds above us right now. It’s all smoke.

Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
Smoke haze from the Canadian wildfires obscures the view of the Chicago skyline from Montrose Beach on June 27, 2023.

Collis said Chicago is likely to peak in air quality readings on Tuesday, with a gradual improvement on Wednesday.

But as long as fires continue to burn in Ontario and Quebec, Chicago will likely be hit by smoky skies again, he said.

The real question is, how long before our next storm system arrives to bring winds back from Canada? he said. So long-term, what we need is for those fires to go away, because that’s going to continue to happen in a cyclical way as we start getting our north and northwest winds back.

Chicago is expected to go from very unhealthy air quality on Wednesday to unhealthy for sensitive groups on Thursday, a slight improvement, according to AirNows forecast. By the weekend, air quality should return to moderate, according to the index.

Chicago Public Schools said in an email to families on Tuesday that it will move its summer programs indoors to reduce the risk to students and staff.

Mayor Brandon Johnson also issued a statement saying the city is monitoring the situation and urges children, teenagers, the elderly, people with heart or lung disease, and pregnant women to avoid strenuous activity and limit time outdoors.

For additional precautions, all Chicagoans may also consider wearing masks, limiting their outdoor exposure, moving activities indoors, running air purifiers and closing windows, it reads. in the statement. As these unsafe conditions continue, the city will continue to provide updates and act quickly to ensure vulnerable people have the resources they need to protect themselves and their families. Anyone needing immediate medical attention should dial 911.

Residents can check airnow.gov to track air quality throughout the day.

Some city buildings are available at various hours to Chicagoans who need shelter in places with better ventilation, Johnson said. People can visit any Chicago public library, senior center, or the Chicago Cultural Center, 78 E. Washington St.

Find your local library here. Find your nearest senior center here.

People can also visit six community service centers. All operate from 9am to 5pm Monday through Friday, with the exception of the Garfield Center, which is open 24 hours.

  • Englewood Center, 1140 W. 79th St.
  • Garfield Center, 10 S. Kedzie Ave. (24 hours)
  • King’s Center, 4314 S. Cottage Grove Avenue.
  • North Area Center, 845 W. Wilson Ave.
  • South Chicago Center, 8650 S. Commercial Ave.
  • Trina Davila Center, 4312 W. North Ave.

The American Lung Association and Mount Sinai Health Systems have shared the following tips for those looking to limit exposure to unhealthy air:

  • Avoid exercising outdoors and stay inside with the windows closed and the air conditioning on if possible.
  • Avoid driving your car if possible, as driving contributes to poor air quality.
  • Not smoking.
  • If you must be outside, consider wearing an N95 or KN95 mask. Surgical masks won’t be helpful with air pollution, according to Mount Sinai Health.

Northwestern Medicine pulmonologist Dr. Ravi Kalhan agreed that people should avoid outdoor exercise and other activities when air quality is so poor. He said asthma sufferers should definitely wear a KN95 mask outside if possible.

An AQI of 20, if you were out all day, is very close to smoking one cigarette a day. So an AQI of 200, if you’ve been outside all day, is equivalent to smoking 10 cigarettes, he said.

Chicago’s air quality index was 215 at 8:30 am Wednesday.

Kalhan said that in addition to keeping the windows closed, people can also keep their HVAC system running if it has a high-quality filter to clean the air in their homes.

If they have a central HVAC system with a central filter, and that filter is a high quality filter in the MERV 8 to 13 range, it’s probably best to run the HVAC fan, so the air is cleaned continuously with the windows closed, he She said. If people don’t have central air and can afford a portable air purifier with a HEPA filter, running it indoors with the windows closed is best practice.

While poor air quality is bad for vulnerable populations, a single day event should be manageable for most people, Kalhan said. But the long-term consequences are more worrisome and could lead to a major public health problem, she said.

Kids can’t be at home every day, right? It’s not a possibility. And if our young people are continuously exposed to the equivalent of 5 to 10 cigarettes a day from the day they’re born until the day they’re 40, there’s a chronic health risk associated with that, he said. We need to approach it in the big picture through that lens, which the more often we have these days, the greater the long-term public health threat.

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