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NH could still be affected by Canada’s wildfire smoke, experts say

 Rye Beach sunrise with a hazy appearance on Tuesday, June 6, 2023.
Dan Tuohy
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NHPR
A hazy sunrise over the Atlantic Ocean in Rye, N.H. on Tuesday morning.

On Monday, New Hampshire residents might have noticed a hazy sky and experienced upper respiratory symptoms such as coughing or wheezing. Wildfire smoke floating over from Canada is the culprit.

While New Hampshire’s air quality was better the remainder of this week, Granite Staters may still need to be wary of smoke pollution.

“We can say pretty confidently that wildfire smoke is likely to be one of the most widely felt health impacts of climate change,” said Justin Mankin, climate researcher and professor of geography at Dartmouth College. “New Hampshire enjoys being a climate refuge in a lot of ways. I think this event in Canada signals that we are not impervious to climate extremes here.”

What’s causing the fires?

Mankin said the wildfires in Canada are persisting due to multiple atypical factors, such as a long drought in May and atmospheric circulation redirecting precipitation away from these dry areas.

There are currently nearly 430 active wildfires across Canada, and so far this year nearly 11 million acres have burned: an area almost double the state of New Hampshire. With so many active fires, comes a high amount of wildfire smoke in the atmosphere. That smoke is then carried around by wind currents, depositing particulate matter in its wake.

Currently, the New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services is listing the particle pollution levels as good.

While the winds have been fairly favorable for New Hampshire compared to states like New York and Massachusetts, “that need not always be the case,” said Mankin.

In this aerial image, an aircraft, center, flies near a wildfire burning near Barrington Lake in Shelburne County, Nova Scotia, on Wednesday, May 31, 2023. (Communications Nova Scotia/The Canadian Press via AP)
HO/AP
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Communications Nova Scotia
An aircraft flies near a wildfire burning near Barrington Lake in Shelburne County, Nova Scotia, on Wednesday, May 31, 2023.

What are the health effects?

Wildfire smoke is dangerous to your lung health because of the particles it produces. When inhaled, those particles can stick to your lungs and trigger asthma attacks, coughing and wheezing. They can also increase the risk of respiratory conditions such as COVID-19 and influenza, according to the American Lung Association.

Those particularly at risk include people with lung diseases such as asthma, pregnant people, children and older adults.

“This type of exposure [to] increased particulate matter concentrations could definitely be very detrimental,” said Dr. Laura Paulin, pulmonologist at Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center. “Both in terms of how their day to day symptoms go, but also increasing their short-term risk of exacerbations and the potential need for E.R. visits or hospitalizations, which is a well-established side effect of exposure to particulate matter, even for a relatively short amount of time."

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency created a user-friendly measure called the Air Quality Index that uses color categories to identify the risk of air pollution exposure.

Paulin, who has a background studying the impacts of air pollution on health, said even people who might not typically fall into the EPA’s sensitive group category could be affected. New Hampshire is expected to have higher than average temperatures this summer, which Paulin said can amplify some of the health effects of this type of pollutant exposure. She said people should assess their own sensitivities to poor air quality.

Knowledge around air quality is an under-discussed topic, including its impacts on health.

“This is not something we're often taught about in medical school,” said Paulin. “Even when I talk to other physician colleagues, they might not have ever heard of particulate matter before or know what it is.”

Paulin said while education around environmental exposures has increased in recent years, healthcare providers might not think to educate their patients.

Allyssa Thompson, director of programs with Breathe New Hampshire, said having to limit time outdoors due to air pollution may affect the quality of life for Granite Staters, from missing work or school to limiting the amount of outdoor exercise people can do.

“Are you able to go for that long bike ride on a day when the air quality is not that great?” said Thompson. “Can summer camps for small children modify their outdoor activities when it’s not safe for children to be outside all day?”

Measures to decrease risk

In the event of an air quality alert, Paulin said it’s best to stay indoors when possible. But she said people also need to be aware of keeping their indoor air clean. She said, when indoors, people should not smoke, burn wood, incense or pellets, or do a lot of cooking.

“That could generate a lot of particles that would potentially make their indoor environment just as harmful as an outdoor environment on high alert days,” said Paulin.

Thompson said in the absence of an updated statewide climate action plan, local governments are missing an opportunity to reduce additional polluters.

“The local government can work with residents and businesses to reduce energy consumption,” said Thompson. “Some policy examples could include increasing public transportation and incentivizing energy efficient buildings.”

Mankin said he can’t imagine a way to manage wildfire smoke, so wildfire management and prevention are key.

“This is incredibly hard work,” said Mankin.

He said people in the field are thinking deeply about how to manage these risks given limited resources.

Adriana (she/they) was a news intern in the summer of 2023, reporting on environment, energy and climate news as part of By Degrees. They graduated from Northwestern's Medill School of Journalism in June 2023.
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