Photo: Destiniee Jaram/QCity Metro

Smoke from Canadian wildfires blanketed hundreds of towns across America this week, triggering air-quality alerts as far south as Minnesota, New York and even Charlotte.

 Health experts in Charlotte warned on Wednesday that at-risk populations — young children, the elderly, and people with diabetes, asthma and heart disease — were at heightened risk of health complications.

Dr. Aaron Levy, a pediatrician at Atrium Health Levine Children’s Hospital and a member of the Mecklenburg County Air Quality Commission, held a press briefing on Wednesday, cautioning that people in those groups should take extra precautions while the air quality is poor.

In Charlotte, officials announced a code orange alert, meaning the city air was “unhealthy for sensitive groups.” Farther north, cities like Philadelphia and New York were under a code red alert, with air quality that posed a health risk to all residents.

“The lungs interact with the environment,” Dr. Suraj Arora, a pulmonologist at Novant Health, told QCity Metro. 

Large particles from air pollution can deposit into the lungs and cause inflammation, aggravating underlying diseases such as asthma or causing coughing, wheezing and chest pain, he said.

Why it matters: In the U.S., smoke exposure from fires led to an estimated 3,900–6,300 respiratory hospitalizations and 1,700–2,800 cardiovascular hospitalizations, according to a health burden assessment study that looked at the years 2008 to 2012. 

Dr. Levy, with Atrium Health, said low-income residents, because they are less likely to have health insurance and more likely to have chronic health conditions, are at a higher risk from air pollution. 

Dr. Arora, with Novanbt, recommends checking the air quality index daily and staying indoors when the air quality index reads red or purple.  High-risk individuals, he said, should avoid prolonged outdoor exposure when the air quality index reads orange. 

High-risk individuals also should consider wearing an N95 mask on days when the outdoor air quality is red or purple, Dr. Arora said. He also said people with asthma or COPD should create an action plan with their healthcare provider.

For those who can’t stay indoors, Dr. Levy recommends limiting physical activity and taking frequent breaks. 

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