Avera Medical Minute: Addressing air quality concerns

Published: Jun. 19, 2023 at 10:56 PM CDT
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SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (Dakota News Now) - Fires from Canada have been leading to poor air quality in the eastern United States, and earlier this spring, you may remember when parts of South Dakota experienced smoke settling from Canada.

Tonight’s Medical Minute gives a closer look at what air quality means and how it can affect your health.

Most days when you step outside, the sun is shining.

But sometimes, that breath of fresh air you’re expecting is clouded by poor air quality.

“The Environmental Protection Agency actually has some guidelines set up on air quality,” said pulmonologist Anthony Hericks. “They put certain levels there that are to hopefully help us decide whether it’s a healthy environment to be in, and they can rate it as mild, moderate or severe.”

The Environmental Protection Agency has an air quality index that levels from 0 to 500. The higher that number is, the greater the level of air pollution.

“Normally, a level of air quality index less than 50 is what we consider normal or healthy. Once you start getting up into that 100 point on the air quality measure, that’s where people with lung disease or at-risk disease processes that may affect their breathing will have troubles, and into the 300 range is where we start seeing patients without any lung disease have problems,” said Hericks.

Recently, fires from Canada have been affecting the air quality in the eastern side of the United States.

Meteorologists use different models to determine where smoke from those fires will travel and potentially affect the area where you live.

“We have computer models that guide us and show us where the smoke is now and where it might be over the next 24-48 hours, so we tend to look at those and are able to tell people whether or not the smoke will be pretty thick or not,” said Phil Schreck, chief meteorologist at Dakota News Now.

The jet stream plays a role in that.

“Let’s say the fires are in western Canada, and if the jet stream is coming in, going north, through western Canada and turning the corner and coming back down, straight down from the north as it has in the recent past, that will bring that smoke down, and it depends on how long that jet stream pattern will stay like that,” said Schreck.

Dr. Hericks says how you will be affected when the air quality reaches certain levels all depends on your sensitivity.

“It’s just like allergens, that if you have allergies to cats and you walk into somebody’s home that has one cat, you may have a severe allergic reaction, where if you don’t have any allergies, you never know that the cat is there, so it really depends on your sensitivity to whatever that particulate matter or problem in the air is,” said Hericks. “If you’re an asthmatic, it may cause you to have more chest tightness, more shortness of breath, more wheezing — those kind of things. As a person without any lung problems, you might not have any symptoms whatsoever at the lower levels.”

If you are at risk or just want to take extra precautions, there are some steps you can take.

“Make sure your windows are closed and sealed, make sure you avoid extended periods of time outside, make sure you avoid excessive activities that would cause you to breathe in deeper or heavier or longer. If you have an air conditioner, make sure that it’s working appropriately and that your filters and your furnace area are changed to collect that debris — those are probably the most important things you can do to maintain adequate air quality in your home while the air quality outside is poor,” said Hericks.

Address air quality concerns so you can stay on top of your health.

“Obviously, this is something that is concerning because of all the media that’s going out, and that’s why we are talking about it right now,” said Hericks. “If you do have a lot of symptoms or a lot of concerns, then get hold of your primary care provider, and just make sure you keep good lung health.”

To learn more about air quality, visit avera.org/medicalminute.