The air is toxic

Where there's fire, there's smoke

On Tuesday I drove to Itasca State Park, in north-central Minnesota, for an overnight camping trip. The air was hazy when I left on account of smoke from wildfires in Ontario and Manitoba, and we’d spent a good chunk of the past two weeks under one air quality warning or another. I didn’t give much thought to them because other than the haze and a faint, campfire-y smell of burnt wood in the air there wasn’t much to notice.

Then I saw the wall of smoke.

There it sat, atop one of the gentle ridges just outside the town of Bagley, as if the upwelling of the landscape there were somehow keeping it contained. The transition between the hazy sunshine of the Red River Valley and the oppressive smoke was jarring, almost unnatural. This was smoke you could actually see, swirling and pooling in little nooks in the landscape, dropping visibility down to about a mile on an otherwise sunny day. I slowed down, turned the radio on: was there a raging local fire I hadn’t heard about?

But there was nothing on the airwaves, no warnings or signs of calamity, just the usual mix of Christian and Country and agricultural news. Conditions were the exact same at the park, 30 miles away, eliminating any hope that the smoke was just some minor local phenomenon. Finally I got a concerned text from my wife, with an alert from the National Weather Service confirming what I started to suspect: the wind that day was focusing all of the smoke from the Canadian wildfires into this little corner of Minnesota, resulting in the state’s worst air quality readings since the advent of modern record-keeping decades prior. Northern Minnesota’s normally pristine skies were at that point home to the most toxic air in the entire country.

By the following day, nearly everywhere else was blanketed in smoke too. Some of it came from the same Canadian wildfires fouling the air in Minnesota. Some of it originated in the American West, flowing eastward across the entire country, darkening skies in New York and working its way across the Atlantic.

These smoky skies are a taste of the new normal in a rapidly warming climate, where hotter, drier conditions set the stage for more destructive fire activity. Whenever we get a big fire year like this one the focus tends to be on the immediate impacts — acres burned, structures destroyed, lives lost. But the most devastating legacy of these events may turn out to be not the flames, but rather the smoke.

People often wonder which public health practices we take for granted today will cause us to recoil with horror in the future, the way we now look at the widespread cigarette use of the 50s and 60s.

My money’s on our casual attitudes toward air pollution. In the past twenty or so years, dozens, possibly hundreds of rigorous academic studies have been published on the health effects of air pollution, each one yielding more alarming findings than the last. Airborne pollutants have been directly linked to tens of thousands of deaths annually in the United States. The smallest pollution particles can travel deep into your lungs and enter your bloodstream, causing heart attacks, strokes, kidney disease, dementia, cancer, pneumonia and other ailments.

People exposed to air pollution perform more poorly at their jobs and show evidence of decreased cognitive function.

Perhaps most alarming: nearly all of these effects are observed at ambient pollution levels well below current the current EPA safety threshold, which stands at 12 micrograms per cubic meter. But studies find detectable mortality effects at levels of pollution as low as three micrograms.

The air around Itasca State Park on Tuesday? Approaching 400 micrograms per meter.

One piece of good news is that environmental regulation efforts have generally worked well, and overall average small particle pollution in the United States has decreased considerably since 2000. But progress has stalled since 2016 or thereabouts, likely due in no small part to the Trump administration’s refusal to strengthen the relevant guidelines.

Growing wildfire smoke, meanwhile, threatens to reverse the progress that’s already been made.

At Itasca State Park, people were hiking and camping and carrying on as if nothing were unusual. And maybe, indeed, nothing was: we’d all been under air quality warnings for weeks, and today the air was just a bit thicker and smokier than usual. We were getting used to our new normal. I pulled on my pack and hiked to my campsite. What else was I supposed to do?