Smoke from Canadian wildfires creates respiratory hazards for southeast Michigan residents

Smoke from wildfires in Canada is likely to bring more milky days to southeast Michigan skies, leaving some people with respiratory issues vulnerable to the effects of the extra smoky haze in the air.

Dr. Lawrence MacDonald, chief of pulmonary medicine at DMC Huron Valley-Sinai Hospital in Commerce Township, said most people shouldn’t be affected because their body can handle added dust or allergens in the air.

However, these air conditions can exacerbate respiratory issues, especially asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

“You can end up sick. You can end up wheezing and coughing and short of breath. If you’re sick to begin with, you could end up in the hospital. So, the best therapy would be it’s always best to avoid things that trigger lung disease,” MacDonald said.

The GM Renaissance Center is seen through haze and smoke caused by wildfires in Canada in Detroit on Tuesday, June 6, 2023.

What people with respiratory conditions should do

He and other doctors in metro Detroit said if someone notices it is really dusty outside or worse than other days, they should avoid going out. He said those who are smoking need to stop.

They said a person with underlying lung disease should carry an inhaler. If you have asthma and symptoms are increasing, see your health care provider because you may need more than albuterol, such as oral steroids.

If you have significant shortness of breath or wheezing and coughing and albuterol isn’t helping, MacDonald said, go to the emergency department.

He said he believes the current poor air quality will be a transient situation that won’t permanently affect anyone, “though it’s certainly got consequences,” particularly for those with underlying lung or heart disease.

More: Hazardous air quality across Michigan as wildfire smoke from Canada continues to spread

Some emergency department visits up, issues from smoke possible

Four health systems reported at least anecdotal increases in emergency department visits for respiratory issues that could be associated with air quality. But it’s difficult to tell whether the smoke from wildfires is the direct cause of the issues or problems from allergies are bringing people in.

The emergency department of Sparrow Hospital in Lansing has seen about a 10% increase in volume this week, but it’s unclear how much might be because of air quality issues, spokesperson Corey Alexander said.

The emergency departments at Corewell Health East hospitals in Farmington Hills, Royal Oak, Dearborn and Grosse Pointe have seen an uptick in patients with respiratory issues and exacerbations, as has Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit, representatives for each health system said. At Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit, health professionals also are seeing an increase in severity of illness.

More: Detroit's air quality among the world's worst Wednesday due to Canadian wildfire smoke

Dr. Brad Uren, associate professor of emergency medicine at the University of Michigan Health System, said workers there are seeing people with allergy-like symptoms. Most of the patients in the emergency department have severe symptoms, asthma, COPD, underlying lung problems or have compromised cardiovascular systems.

He said some require treatment and are discharged while others are admitted for more intensive respiratory treatments depending on their degree of irritation.

Does an air conditioner clean the air?

Uren said it has seemed like an unusually busy allergy season, with some of that caused by the smoke and some by pollens. He said even staff have commented that everyone “feels a little bit of irritation” or cough or more respiratory symptoms than normal.

He recommended people stay inside and use machines with a HEPA filter to clear the inside air, especially if they are vulnerable. A central air conditioning system with filter may be effective, he said, adding that a smaller room air conditioner probably won’t provide the level of protection that a HEPA filter would.

Dr. Ikenna Okereke, vice chairman of the Department of Surgery and division chief of thoracic surgery at Henry Ford Health, said greenery and plants indoors and outdoors and lowering the temperature inside may help mitigate air pollution from outdoor exposures.

A few doctors said people who are vulnerable could wear a mask outside to filter out smoke and particulates.

Katelyn Jetelina, an epidemiologist and assistant professor at the University of Texas Health Science Center, said in her substack, Your Local Epidemiologist, that more caution is warranted the longer one is exposed to wildfire smoke and the more dense it is. Symptoms can range from mild, such as eye irritation, to serious, such as exacerbation of asthma.

She provided some tips from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that include if you run an air conditioner, keep the fresh-air intake closed. Use a free-standing indoor air filter with particle removal, don’t use candles or fireplaces and don’t vacuum, which stirs up particles. Another tip — wear an N95 mask, as recent research found those masks reduced hospitalizations from wildfire smoke by 30%, she wrote.

Uren said if air quality is very poor and there are members of vulnerable groups participating in outdoor activities, such as young children playing at recess or a gathering where young children, older individuals or those with underlying health conditions will be present, it might be prudent to move the activity indoors or delay it until conditions improve.

That applied to the Detroit Tigers, whose game in Philadelphia was postponed because of poor air quality there.

How long will the air quality be affected?

Megan Varcie, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in White Lake, said the smoke probably will start to dissipate by this weekend in southeast Michigan, when winds shift to northwest to westerly flows, which won't direct smoke plumes over the region as easily.

Currently, Michigan's winds are relatively light and from the north and northeast, sending smoke from the wildfires in Canada here.

Varcie said widespread rain showers forecast for daytime Sunday and into early next week also should help disperse the smoke and pollutants over southeast Michigan. The weather service forecasts a 40% to 60% chance of badly needed rain Sunday and a 30% to 50% chance of rain Monday and Tuesday, Varcie said.

More: Wildfire danger remains extreme across Michigan — and now winds are coming

Is an Air Quality Action Day in effect?

Yes. Authorities issued advisories for Wednesday and Thursday because of the elevated levels of fine particulates in the air, with concentrations to be in the high moderate range and some hourly concentrations in the unhealthy range, according to the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy.

Twenty-eight counties in southern Michigan are included in the advisories. They are: Arenac, Bay, Branch, Calhoun, Clinton, Eaton, Genesee, Gratiot, Hillsdale, Huron, Ingham, Jackson, Kalamazoo, Lapeer, Lenawee, Livingston, Macomb, Midland, Monroe, Oakland, St. Clair, St. Joseph, Saginaw, Sanilac, Shiawassee, Tuscola, Washtenaw and Wayne.

On Wednesday morning, the Air Quality Index was graded unhealthy for Ann Arbor and Detroit.

“A high-pressure system is dominating the area and is currently expected to stay over the Wisconsin/Upper Peninsula border until Friday, which will continue the NNE winds," according to the EGLE website. "Earlier this week, Quebec, Canada, fires were the driving emitter of wildfire smoke across the Midwest, but now it appears fires have sparked in northern Ontario. With NNE winds in place, smoke from Ontario fires will be brought to our area at least through tomorrow, Thursday. It is because of this; this forecast will be updated tomorrow and on a day-to-day basis until the wildfire smoke subsides.”

It continued that high concentrations of pollutants will spread across the state, with moderate concentrations in the northern Lower Peninsula and into the Upper Peninsula. When the forecast is updated Thursday, the department said, it will be determined whether additional areas must be included in the Air Quality Advisory.

“Wildfire smoke looks to persist for the coming days, so overall air quality will remain poor,” according to EGLE.

Earlier Wednesday, Detroit had some of the worst air quality among major cities in the world, according to IQAir’s air quality index.

What you can do when air quality is bad

The Southeast Michigan Council of Governments recommends people and businesses do what they can when high levels of ozone are expected, because breathing high concentrations of ozone can cause health problems, particularly for elderly people, children and people with asthma or other respiratory issues.

“Please take care and do what you can to protect our most vulnerable community members until this threat has passed and air quality has improved," said Amy O'Leary, SEMCOG’s executive director.

Here are some ways SEMCOG said people can help minimize ozone formation:

  • Delay mowing lawn until evening or the next day.

  • Avoid refueling your vehicle during daylight hours.

  • Drive less, telecommute, bike or walk.

  • Delay or combine errands to reduce traffic congestion and air pollution.

  • Reduce electricity use. Adjust your thermostat a few degrees higher and turn off lights, computers and other electrical devices when not in use.

Free Press staff writer Kristen Jordan Shamus contributed to this report.

Contact Christina Hall: Follow her on Twitter: @challreporter.

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This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Canadian wildfires smoke: Air quality, health issues in metro Detroit