Chicago’s air pollution crisis sheds light on what some neighborhoods face all the time, experts say

CHICAGO Chicago’s air quality, which has been some of the worst on Earth this week, is expected to improve in the coming days as a storm system clears smoke from the region.

But the breathing difficulties and long-term health concerns all Chicagoans have experienced this week are nothing new to residents of the city’s most polluted neighborhoods, health and environmental experts say.

Now, those experts are calling on leaders and residents not to lose sight of the need to take action to reduce carbon emissions and to continue exploring the cumulative impacts of pollution and climate change once the smoke clears.

Ultimately we will not see equal impacts

Chicago had the worst air quality of any major city in the world for much of Tuesday. Residents continued to experience very unhealthy levels of air quality on Wednesday and Thursday.

Poor air quality is caused by smoke from wildfires that has flown in from Canada and engulfed much of the United States.

Although all Chicagoans are exposed to smoke this week, we ultimately won’t see equal impacts from community to community, Anastasia Montgomery, a climate change researcher at Northwestern University, said this week.

People who are chronically exposed to higher levels of pollution will be more triggered by this type of polluting event, Montgomery said.

Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
The sun is seen through clouds and smoke as air quality in the city has reached very unhealthy levels, as seen from Millennium Park on June 27, 2023.

Disparities in air pollution are well documented in Chicago.

Montgomery recently led a team of researchers in performing the first neighborhood-level simulation of air pollution in Chicago, which found that communities near freeways are more polluted with fine particulate matter, such as smoke and dust.

The City’s Air Quality and Health Report also found in 2020 that south and west side communities bisected by major highways with high concentrations of industries are overloaded with pollution.

Residents in these overburdened communities are already facing high levels of [particulate matter]ozone and high temperatures in urban heat islands, said Vijay Limaye, senior climate and health scientist for the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Add [wildfire] smoke on top of that, and we can have compounded effects, Limaye said. People historically burdened with air pollution often suffer from chronic heart or lung disease, making them particularly vulnerable to additional threats such as smoking.

Beyond neighborhood disparities, delivery workers, concert workers, construction and maintenance crews and other professions are likely to be most affected by poor air quality, experts say.

There’s a certain segment of the population that doesn’t have the luxury of working from home, so they can’t necessarily follow the public health recommendations that are being made, Limaye said.

Employers should treat smoking as if it were a day of extreme heat, but instead of water outages, [give workers] breaks indoors, said Illinois state climatologist Trent Ford.

Workers should also wear masks if possible to limit exposure to poor air quality, he said.

Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
A hazy view of the NASCAR course under construction as air quality reached very unhealthy levels, as seen from Millennium Park on June 27, 2023.

Mayor Brandon Johnson highlighted unequal environmental burdens and called for continued work on climate justice in a statement Wednesday.

Chicago’s vulnerable communities bear an increasingly heavy burden from extreme weather exacerbated by the climate, Johnson said.

The mayor’s comments came hours before a scheduled public meeting on the city’s ongoing Cumulative Impact Assessment, a study to see how environmental, health and social factors combine to impact community well-being.

The assessment meeting to identify neighborhoods hardest hit by industry and pollution was canceled hours before it was due to start Wednesday, due to air quality problems.

City officials must complete the cumulative impact assessment by Sept. 1 as part of an agreement with the federal government, after the feds found that the city’s clustering of industrial facilities violated the civil rights of Southeast Siders.

Much of our health science is organized pollutant by pollutant, Limaye said. But the truth is, people breathe in all kinds of pollutants at the same time. We need to shift to a cumulative impact mindset to understand, interpret and counter these multiple impacts.

What’s next?

Chicago’s air quality is expected to improve from very unhealthy levels of particulate matter Wednesday to unhealthy Thursday, according to federal air quality forecasts.

The rating is expected to further improve to unhealthy for sensitive groups on Friday and move to moderate over the weekend. Storms forecast this weekend will likely change prevailing wind direction and blow smoke away from Chicago, Ford said.

Hopefully the weather pattern changes will limit or reduce the amount of health impacts that are occurring by the end of the week, he said.

But it will take some time to fully understand how this week’s poor air quality has impacted the health of Chicagoans and their wallets, Limaye said.

There are all kinds of economic disruptions to come from this week’s events, including the costs of visits to urgent care centers, doctor’s offices and emergency rooms as vulnerable Chicagoans deal with asthma attacks, worsening respiratory problems and more , he said.

It’s not just the health tolls of this dangerous air, Limaye said.

The hazy skies come at a particularly bad time just a week before the Fourth of July, as fireworks typically make the holiday the worst air pollution day of the year, Montgomery said.

Hopefully this [wildfire smoke] should resolve before 4th of July, but basically we will be moving from a fire event to an event that will use fireworks [cause pollution] peaks all over the city, he said.

Longer term, Chicagoans can probably expect a few attacks like this over the next few months, Ford said.

Even after the fires are extinguished, the negative impacts of these smoky days can put a spotlight on places that have these chronic air quality problems, he said.

In a few days, when air quality across the region has improved, there will be parts of the city that will still be dealing with poor air quality, Ford said. It’s an opportunity to think about ways to improve air quality conditions across the board.

Chicago-area ozone levels also continue to violate federal standards, and as a result, the area faces tougher federal air pollution regulations.

Alarming air quality readings over the past two days show that all Chicagoans need to keep their guard up, Johnson said.

This week’s smoke is a wake-up call that climate change isn’t just about electric vehicles, solar panels and polar bears, Limaye said. This is truly a life-or-death human health issue.

Until we stop adding climate pollutants to the atmosphere, this problem is headed in one direction: worse impacts from fires, heat and floods, Limaye said.

Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
A hazy view of downtown Chicago as air quality remains at unhealthy levels on June 28, 2023.

How can you protect yourself and your pets this week?

People without access to properly ventilated and safe indoor conditions can visit public libraries, senior centers and Park District facilities for relief, Ald. Lamont Robinson (4th) said in a statement.

Six community service centers throughout the city are also open 9am to 5pm Monday through Friday, with the exception of the Garfield Center, which is open 24 hours. They are:

  • Englewood Center, 1140 W. 79th St.
  • Garfield Center, 10 S. Kedzie Ave.
  • 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.

Pets are also at risk of illness and may have a lack of energy or greatly reduced appetite due to poor air quality, PAWS Chicago spokesman Thomas McFeeley said. Coughing, wheezing, panting, vomiting and diarrhea are other signs that an animal has been affected, he said.

Pet owners are advised to keep pets indoors as much as possible, keep windows closed and fans on, make sure pets have enough water, and only leave dogs outside for short bathroom breaks during checkups and the air quality warnings, McFeeley said.

For more information on how to protect yourself from unhealthy air, click here.

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