Wildfire smoke pollution prompts increased monitoring locally

More smoke is projected to impact Athens County air quality beginning this week.
A plume of smoke from Canada wildfires will impact local air quality this week. Screenshot from FireSmoke Canada.

Hazardous air conditions have spread throughout northern parts of North America due to the recent wildfires originating in Canada. Athens County has been no exception, with smoke impacting local air quality earlier this summer, and more smoke projected later this week.

“We’re really fortunate that generally here in Southeast Ohio, we have pretty good air quality, with the exception of when we have wildfires going on,” said Jack Pepper, administrator of the Athens City–County Health Department.

Wildfire smoke can increase ozone levels and release miniscule, possibly toxic particulates that degrade air quality. The American Red Cross warns that breathing the wildfire smoke can cause a variety of symptoms, including headaches, fatigue, difficulty breathing, asthma attacks and irritation of the eyes, throat and sinuses — even chest pain and increased heart rates.


FireSmoke Canada smoke projection maps show a light plume of smoke reaching Athens County early Friday morning. 

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency maintains the federal Air Quality Index, but its monitoring system may leave as many as 120 million Americans without accurate readings, according to a 2020 Reuters report. That has led to crowdsourced monitoring through apps such as PurpleAir and IQAir.

The Athens County Health Department is working with Ohio University to distribute a dozen real-time air quality monitors around the region, Pepper said. Although not the highest quality, the monitors will provide actual data on air quality. Previously, Pepper said, the department has had to make calculations based on anecdotal evidence.

“We certainly have an interest in what’s going on with our air quality, as do our county regional partners,” said Pepper. 

The new units are simple and efficient, requiring only WiFi and access to power, Pepper said. He expects the new units to be implemented within the next couple of weeks. 

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Earlier this summer, smoke from Canadian wildfires drastically reduced visibility in New York City. Local health departments in the Midwest, New England and the East Coast issued air quality warnings for residents. 

The first wildfire started in Shelburne County in southwestern Nova Scotia on May 27, according to the Canadian Wildland Fire Information System. That fire has consumed over 250 square kilometers, making it the largest wildfire recorded in the province’s history. 

According to the Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Centre, hundreds of fires were active across Canada, from Quebec to British Columbia. As of July 25, 30 new fires were starting daily. With more than 20 million acres burned to date, the agency predicts that 2023 will be Canada’s worst-ever wildfire season. 

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