Rescue from Canadian wildfire air

This morning I got up, took a deep breath, expecting the faint fragrance of my lilies and mock orange. I smelled burnt glue. By noon, headlines are like NPR’s: “Air quality plummets as Canadian wildfire stretches the Midwest.”

It was worse than the air in Uganda. Years ago, I worked at a remote, rural clinic. Villagers used coal to cook and boil water. Boda-boda, a small motorcycle and their major mode of transportation, expelled gray clouds of exhaust and kicked up orange dust everywhere. In the morning, the little village was baked in a haze of smoke. I was wheezing daily.

For the past few days, our air quality has nosedived and reached levels worse than India and China. As of June 30, Canada is fighting close to 500 wildfires. The West Coast – just getting started – is battling 112 wildfires. With climate change, scientists predict the pattern is likely to repeat and worsen.

For short-term exposure, most can handle it, but some of us need new survival tricks.

First, a fun pollution fact: When it comes to air pollutants, size matters. The smallest are the nastiest.

Large pollutants get caught in the nose and airway. But the small particles travel deep into the lungs, and some can cross lungs to blood and onto other organs. These dangerous small particles are called “PM2.5” – Particulate Matter smaller than 2.5 microns – and are among the six air pollutants tracked diligently by the EPA.  

The inflammation caused by air pollutants stresses our bodies. Our bodies’ response to the inflammation stresses us even more – and can make things worse.

Before you start wheezing and really get sick, know some early warning signs:

1. Your breathing is worse. Initially, you might cough more. You’re short of breath at rest or earlier when exercising. Your eyes burn and tear; throat tickles; nose runs.  

2. Your chest feels heavy.

3. You tire easily.  

4. You have more headaches.

To protect yourself, do:

1. Check websites for air quality before you decide a day’s activities. Start with or

2. Close your windows. Good HVAC and portable air cleaner filters help remove large and small particles. EPA has great info including a YouTube video called “Dealing with Dust in the Wind” that addresses the specifics and limitations of indoor air cleaners.

3. Stay indoors – especially for the very young, old, pregnant and if you have heart or lung problems.

3. Watch for other conditions that can worsen a polluted day: extreme heat, high humidity, and pollens.

4. High-grade face masks like N95 help. How much does it help? It’s complicated. It depends on the fit, materials, and duration you wear. Under best conditions, a study showed wearing masks like N95 and higher could reduce breathing-related hospitalization and ER visits by 30%.

5. Indoor plants including aloe and spider plants can’t filter air adequately.

In Uganda, I saw a boy who “couldn’t run.” His breathing was getting worse. His mother brought him in multiple times. His X-ray was normal. His exam was normal. His mother looked at me expecting a Western medicine miracle. He looked at me amusingly as if seeing a living giant panda at arm's length.

At that moment, I was pretty sure the “miracle” was sitting in my coat pocket – my albuterol inhaler. Like me, he likely had exercise-induced asthma. The clinic stocked a few drugs but nothing for breathing. He tried my inhaler but couldn’t use it right (it takes practice). The major hospital was an hour's drive and might as well be on another planet.

I couldn’t do a thing for the child. Before traveling, I was terrified of malaria. But like 91% of the world's population who live in highly polluted areas, it was the bad air that got us.

Access this article on for links to the resources mentioned.

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Volume 15, Issue 12, Posted 9:18 AM, 07.05.2023