Canadian wildfires have led to poor air quality in Minnesota for several days. Downtown Minneapolis pictured on Thursday, June 15, 2023. Credit: Dymanh Chhoun | Sahan Journal

Physicians and public health experts are urging Minnesotans to take measures to keep themselves safe as air quality in the Twin Cities over the last two days reached what state epidemiologists believe are its worst levels ever.

Wildfire smoke has caused significant drops in air quality in Minnesota before, including two years ago. But repeated poor air quality events in a short span of time, like the state is experiencing this year, can have a negative cumulative effect on people, medical experts said. 

“I don’t think you really need to be a doctor to know that the smoke is not good for us,” said Dr. Laalitha Surapaneni, a practicing physician and an assistant professor at University of Minnesota Medical School.

Surapaneni noted that studies have found that exposure to wildfire smoke can lead to increases in emergency room visits for asthma and heart attacks following wildfire exposure. A study in California also found an increased risk in per-term births due to exposure to wildfire smoke.

Hospitals in the Twin Cities are still sorting out the extent of the impact of poor air quality and particulate matter from wildfire smoke in the region. It was unclear Thursday whether the recent spate of poor air quality days that left a thick, gray haze hanging over Minneapolis and St. Paul Wednesday has led to a noticeable increase in hospital visits.

A spokesperson for Hennepin Health said that the hospital’s emergency department has not seen an increase in patients due to air quality concerns. Keith Cavanaugh, a pediatric pulmonologist at Children’s Minnesota, wrote in an email to Sahan Journal that his hospital has seen patients coming in with symptoms caused or worsened by the smoke. The exact numbers were unclear. 

Poor air quality can be dangerous for all residents, but it’s particularly harmful for people who are older or very young, and who have underlying heart and lung conditions. 

It also disproportionately affects poorer residents and communities of color, who, due to racist government policies and bank practices, tend to be concentrated in neighborhoods that are subject to more ongoing air pollution to begin with from industry and traffic, medical experts said. Those communities are also more susceptible to adverse outcomes when the air quality is affected by factors like wildfires. 

“We know that poor and Black and brown communities have higher rates of asthma, COPD (Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease), emphysema, heart disease—pick your favorite chronic illness,” said Zeke McKinney, an occupational and environmental physician at Health Partners. “So, they’re going to be the people more affected by this, and also the people who are going to have problems staying out of work.” 

Many of the recommendations for protecting oneself from poor air quality—limiting time outdoors, driving with the car windows up, running air filtration systems, establishing a clean air room, and so on—are also not available to people who work and live outside, or who have limited financial means. 

“Climate change in all its manifestations is an issue of health equity,” Surapaneni said. 

While Minnesotans can expect relief from the wildfire smoke by the start of the weekend, there is broad consensus among scientists that the severity of the current wildfires in Canada is driven by climate change, and will likely become the new normal. 

“Despite all available scientific evidence, we continue to burn fossil fuels and continue to damage our environment,” Surapaneni continued later. “We know that wildfires are predicted to become more frequent and become more intense, and the wildfire period itself is supposed to last longer.” 

The smoke that caused the poor air quality in Minnesota over the last several days is projected to dissipate on Friday and over the weekend, but state officials already have their eyes on another fire in Ontario, Canada, that could cause another wave of smoke and poor air quality in Minnesota.

Cavanaugh, a pediatric pulmonologist at Children’s Minnesota, wants to see elected officials act decisively to protect the air. 

“We should expect our politicians to minimize partisan views and work together to implement environmental laws that are beneficial to everyone,” Cavanaugh said. “That means they will need to compromise. Poor quality air does not care about political views. Everyone is affected.” 

That effort, though it is massive in scale, must start on the local level, Cavanaugh and Surapaneni said. Surapaneni noted that projects like Enbridge’s Line 3 pipeline, an oil pipeline that runs from Canada and through Minnesota into Wisconsin, have a direct cumulative effect on the air quality we’re seeing now. 

There are also short-term interventions that local and state governments can take to help keep residents safe when the air quality suffers due to wildfire smoke, health experts said. McKinney said local governments could send air quality alerts to people on their cellphones in the same way Amber Alerts for missing children are shared. 

Surapaneni, meanwhile, noted that California, which has been dealing with devastating wildfire seasons for years, has established a program to open clean air centers across the state where vulnerable people can take refuge during poor air quality events if they can’t do so at home. 

Then there are also measures people can take on a personal level. The most important, physicians say, is to stay informed—to keep up with the air quality conditions and forecasts, and then to plan around them. 

Lasting relief from routine wildfire smoke, however, will likely come only with climate action, some local medical experts said. 

“It’s beyond comprehensible to me how we continue to live through the impacts of climate change in real time and our politicians continue to build more fossil fuel infrastructure,” Surapaneni said. “So, we absolutely need to make sure that we are talking about stopping the damage that we’re doing to our climate at this time as well.” 

Wildfires in Canada have been the source of poor air quality in Minnesota and many other states over the last several weeks. But the Canadian wildfire season hasn’t officially begun yet. It officially starts July 1, according to David Brown, an environmental scientist with the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency.

How to protect yourself from poor air quality

  • Check air quality conditions and forecasts on the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency’s website.
  • Establish a clean air room in the home that has good air circulation.
  • Stay hydrated.
  • Limit exposure to the air outside by staying indoors or wearing an N95 mask when outdoors.
  • Keep the windows closed.
  • Invest in a good heating, ventilation, and air conditioning system. 
  • If it’s difficult to take these safety measures at home, consider spending time at a local library or community center when the air quality is poor.

Abe Asher is a journalist whose work covering protest, police, and politics has appeared in The Nation, VICE News, the Portland Mercury, and other outlets. Follow him on Twitter @abe_asher.