Why Air Quality Concerns Can’t Be Blown Away



By Simon Morrow
Brent Stephens

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration says there has been a trend of “increased risk and extent of wildfires in the western United States during the last two decades,” citing climate change as a key driver. Arthur W. Hill Endowed Chair in Sustainability Brent Stephens, an expert in air quality and air filtration at Illinois Institute of Technology, explains the impacts of wildfires.  

“Wildfires affect air quality by generating a mixture of gasses and fine particles as trees, plants, and other materials burn,” he says. “Wildfire smoke can affect air quality locally near the fire, and can also transport pollutants very long distances—even hundreds or thousands of miles away.”

“Everyone is at some increased risk for health problems from inhaling wildfire smoke,” he says, but the highest risk is to children, older adults, and people with preexisting heart or lung conditions. 

To protect yourself, Stephens offers a few straightforward recommendations. 

“When levels of wildfire smoke are high, you should limit outdoor activities and stay inside,” he says. While buildings offer some protection on their own, Stephens recommends the use of an air cleaner with a HEPA filter. “Even low-cost do-it-yourself solutions can help a lot,” he says. “When you need to be outside, you can wear a respirator—use more than a cloth or surgical mask and go with an N95 or better respirator.”