Climate change is making wildfire seasons longer and more severe. (Josh O'Connor/USFWS)
Climate change is making wildfire seasons longer and more severe. (Josh O'Connor/USFWS)

As wildfire smoke from Canada engulfed the northeast U.S., the District of Columbia saw record-breaking levels of dangerous particle pollution in its air on June 7 and 8. Photos of D.C.’s famous monuments and landmarks shrouded in hazy smog circulated online as the city issued a Code Purple alert for “very unhealthy” air. 

Most of the smoke has now moved out to the Atlantic, leaving D.C. with clear air. But wildfire smoke will likely become a more common experience for our region in the coming years as fossil fuel emissions continue to heat up the planet. And experts warn that even short-term exposure to toxic air can have long-lasting health impacts. 

“What I try to tell people is that if you don’t take air quality serious, then you’re just cutting years off your life,” said Dr. Joseph L. Wilkins, a leading wildfire and air pollution expert and professor at Howard University. 

Researchers can attribute between 5,000 and 8,000 yearly deaths in the U.S. to wildfire smoke, Wilkins said. People with heart and lung conditions, as well as seniors, children and pregnant people, face the highest risk of air pollution-related health issues. During sharp spikes in air pollution like the one D.C. experienced last week, these sensitive groups are more likely to experience acute, immediate symptoms than other parts of the population. 

Vashad Neville, a 23-year-old DMV resident who works in home restoration (and son of Washington Informer bookkeeper Mable Neville), had to leave work the morning of June 8 after noticing tightness in his chest. Neville, who has asthma, began having trouble catching his breath as he went in and out of the house he was working on.

After getting home and using an asthma nebulizer machine, Neville felt okay. He stayed inside the rest of the day, and the next day, too. 

“It was fine after that,” he said. “I stayed away, mostly, from my window.”

Neither George Washington University Hospital nor Children’s National saw an uptick in emergency room visits during the worst air quality days, representatives from both hospitals said. Tomi Adesogan, a representative from Impact DC Asthma Clinic at Children’s National, said that the clinic fielded some additional calls from families but most issues did not require patients to come into the clinic. Some patients, like Neville, needed to use an inhaler or nebulizer machine and then remain indoors. 

Still, breathing in smoke isn’t just dangerous in the short term. Polluted air increases risks for later developing heart conditions and breathing issues. 

“Whether you’re healthy or not, you’re still putting things into your lungs that you can’t filter and that are eating away at your systems,” Wilkins said. 

What Were We Breathing In Last Week?

The major pollutant in wildfire smoke that worries researchers like Wilkins is particulate matter, or microscopic particles of solids and liquids in the air. While it may seem counterintuitive, smaller particles pose more serious and long-lasting health risks than larger particles, which our bodies can recognize and filter out by coughing and sneezing. These “fine” or “ultrafine” particles are tiny enough to get into our lungs and even our bloodstreams.

That type of pollution, sometimes referred to as PM2.5, caused the “unhealthy” Code Red and “very unhealthy” Code Purple alerts declared in the region last week. D.C. last experienced a Code Purple alert in 2012, but that was caused by high levels of ozone pollution; the city has never before seen this level of particle pollution in the air, according to the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments

Wildfire Smoke and Injustice

Even when polluted air descends upon a whole region, it doesn’t impact everyone equally. Disparities in health and healthcare access—caused by legacies of redlining and economic and environmental injustice—leave Black Americans more likely to fall into the “sensitive” category when it comes to air pollution risk. For example, 16% of Black children in the District have asthma; among non-Hispanic white children, the rate was 3.3%, according to research presented last month at an American Thoracic Society conference. 

Income also plays a huge role in minimizing the impacts of severe air quality events.

“If you have money, you can do things like move away from an area,” Wilkins said. “You can buy air filters, you can buy really nice masks.” 

Dr. Stephanie Lovinsky-Desir, a New York City-based pediatric pulmonologist, also mentioned that having central A/C also offers a major advantage, since window units will blow smoky air in from outside. In general, air quality tends to get worse during summer months, when people need to run cooling systems.

The risks of exposure jump even higher for those who need to work outdoors, such as Neville. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, more than 32,000 people in the District work in construction labor, groundskeeping or landscaping

When he had to leave work because he couldn’t breathe, Neville did not receive paid sick leave. He estimates that he lost out on $320 in wages during the two days he needed to remain at home. 

And not all District residents have a home indoors to which they can return. Unhoused people experience particularly high risks for health harms due to air pollution spikes. That’s especially true because unhoused folks have higher levels of heart and lung conditions than the population at large.

Lichrisha, who has been homeless for about a year and asked to be identified only by her first name, noticed Thursday that her eyes felt irritated and she had a “terrible headache.” 

“I had my head in my hands—I couldn’t stand it,” Lichrisha said. 

The Challenge for Public Health Leaders: Getting the Word Out

Both Neville and Lichrisha spent large parts of June 7 outdoors. Neither heard anything that day about the city’s Code Red alert for “unhealthy” air. 

The next morning, Neville noticed the haze in the air, but at first—like many D.C. residents—he thought it was just foggy out. When he called in to say he was having trouble breathing, Neville’s boss mentioned the air quality alert. 

“People have to be informed more often when stuff like that is happening, because things could’ve got bad if I didn’t check the Internet or check my phone,” Neville said. 

Lichrisha learned about the air quality alert on June 8, after seeing a sign about it outside the Martin Luther King, Jr. Library. 

“The libraries are very proactive,” she said. She praised the District for being “accommodating” and “inclusive” by using libraries to distribute information and providing access to both libraries and day shelters for an escape from the smoke. 

But researchers say that municipal governments—particularly in the Northeast, where wildfire smoke events are not common—have struggled to communicate quickly about air quality alerts. Wilkins said that meteorologists can make predictions about air quality about as far out as they can forecast the weather, usually seven to 10 days in advance. 

In the week before the Code Red and Purple alerts, the District experienced an unusual number of Code Orange days when the air quality posed a health risk to sensitive groups. Researchers knew, based on wind patterns, that more smoke would hit the region. 

“We knew the smoke was coming, and we told people that it was on the way,” Wilkins said. “No one really reacted until it got here—until you see those crazy pictures of the orange skies, the red moon and all that stuff, no one really cared. So I don’t think the city’s pushed it seriously enough.”

Public health communicators also struggle to convey the urgency of severe air quality events to the public, Wilkins said. 

“If this was a tornado warning, or a hurricane warning, folks would be hunkering down,” he said.

The Elephant in the Room: Climate Change

Wildfire smoke can travel hundreds or thousands of miles, and Wilkins said that the wind pattern that brought the smoke from Canada to the U.S. is not a particularly rare occurrence. What’s new is that this wildfire season has been unprecedented in Canada, with over 2,000 fires burning up more than 13 times the usual number of acres for this time of year. More land than the entirety of Maryland has burned so far. 

As greenhouse gas emissions heat up the planet and cause hotter and drier weather, wildfire seasons are starting earlier in the U.S. and across the globe.

“This is only the start of wildfire season, and this is a really, really early start to wildfire season,” said Lovinsky-Desir, the pediatric pulmonologist. “I feel like this is a call to arms for climate health and climate justice. Climate change is real, and this is just one example of us seeing it in real time.”

Until corporations and people slash their fossil fuel use dramatically, wildfire smoke will only become a more severe and more frequent problem in our region. Last week, the District saw the highest levels of particulate matter ever recorded in the city. 

“The amount of pollution that we’re seeing right now—it’s insane, for lack of a better way of describing it,” Wilkins said. “This is something that folks aren’t accustomed to, and we aren’t meant to breathe this as humans.”

Hamil R. Harris and Brenda C. Siler contributed reporting to this story.

Kayla Benjamin covers climate change & environmental justice for the Informer as a full-time reporter through the Report for America program. Prior to her time here, she worked at Washingtonian Magazine...

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