Advice for dealing with air quality alerts – Park Rapids Enterprise

Canadian wildfires have led to numerous air quality alerts in this area so far this summer, and exposure to unhealthy air may lead to long-term health effects.

The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) issues the alerts. When fine particle levels reach the orange Air Quality Index (AQI) category, the air is considered unhealthy for sensitive groups. When the AQI reaches the red level, the air is considered unhealthy for everyone and it is recommended that people avoid prolonged time outdoors when possible.

Dr. Larry Leadbetter practices internal medicine at the Essentia Clinic in Park Rapids.

He said studies about the long-term impacts of breathing this type of wildfire smoke are inconclusive.

“The studies are pretty variable,” he said. “Some suggest that there could be some longer-term effects, particularly with adults, while other studies suggest there aren’t any long-term effects at all. So there’s controversy whether there’s a long-term effect from this kind of exposure versus people whose jobs put them in the front line fighting fires.”

He said some studies suggest lung irritation could be one long-term effect from poor air quality.

“There may also be a correlation between those fires and the chemicals in them and heart illness,” he said.

In addition to the smoke particles, Leadbetter said the smoke from Canadian wildfires that comes to Minnesota also carries higher levels of carbon monoxide and ozone.

“Both of those have different effects within the lung and the body itself,” he said. “That’s part of the concern with that kind of smoke.”

Air quality alerts and forecasts are available on the MPCA website at


, as well as on some weather apps, including WDAY’s StormTRACKER app that has meteorologists based in Fargo.

Leadbetter said burning in the eyes and throat are common complaints from people who are outdoors during air quality alerts.

“With exposure to heavier smoke, some will get burning and discomfort in the chest,” he said. “A cough or tickle may occur, particularly in asthmatic people or people with COPD with a reactive airway component. They don’t tolerate the smoke-filled air as well, and it will trigger coughing.”

He said patients with asthma or COPD should always keep an inhaler with them. “A backup inhaler is good to have also,” he said.

“Asthmatic children and adults have more problems with the smoke, so it’s better to stay inside if you can,” he said. “Air conditioning systems can help filter some of the smoke.”

Another option is to add an air purifier with a HEPA filter.

“They will take some of the particles out of the air so you don’t have quite as high a concentration,” he said. “The problem with the fire smoke is that it has more than just the dust and ash particles. It also has other chemicals in there and those aren’t all stopped by the filters. Those chemicals can be more challenging and cause longer term effects for some people, particularly those with longer exposure like firefighters who have been on the fire lines.”

He said while N95 masks may help filter out some of the particles in the smoke, they have to be properly fitted in order to be effective.

“They’re very uncomfortable to wear if you’re not used to them,” he said. “If you have lung disease to start with, it’s sometimes very hard to use one because they create a tighter seal and that may make it challenging to breathe. And any mask, even an N95, won’t protect your lungs from the chemicals in the smoke.”

He said the chemicals in wildfires come from houses and other materials burning.

“Those chemicals get wafted in the air,” he said.

Leadbetter said that when there is an air quality alert it’s best to limit time outdoors, if you can.

“A lot of people up here are more outdoorsy and like to be outside, so naturally they tend to be exposed to what Mother Nature throws at them,” he said. “If you watch the smoke maps, you’ll see that it comes in plumes. When a heavy plume clears out, there may be a clear period. Before going out, step out the door and smell the air and see if it looks clear.”

When there is a red alert, Leadbetter said limiting exposure to the smoke is especially important.

“Watching the weather maps is helpful,” he said. “Often you will see a big high (pressure system) like we recently had over the area that seemed to shield us from the wildfire smoke. The lows tend to channel that northwest wind towards us and bring the smoke down.”

Leadbetter said exposure to unhealthy air quality from the Canadian wildfires could cause problems for pregnant women and their unborn children as well.

“They should visit with their obstetrician,” he said.

“When symptoms become problematic, then it’s time to come in and get checked over,” Leadbetter said.

He said anyone having difficulty breathing should get in to be seen right away.

“If you’re feeling really short of breath, the emergency room is the place to go,” he said. “You want to see if it is just a flare-up of your illness because of the smoke, or is there more going on. There’s also the walk-in clinic if you’re having symptoms and just aren’t sure if it’s related to the smoke. For children having mild symptoms, contact their pediatrician.”

He said the clinic has seen more patients with underlying conditions during air quality alerts. “During those heavy-smoke times, people who have those pre-existing difficulties like reactive airways seemed to be having more trouble,” he said.