Assoc. Dir. Suellen Breakey speaks to NBC Boston about impact of Canadian wildfires

As the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency issued a poor air quality alert for New England, the MGH Institute’s Center for Climate Change, Climate Justice, and Health explained the reasoning and what people can do to stay safe. 

“This is a time when people need to be aware of what’s in the air,” said Suellen Breakey, PhD, RN, Associate Director, Center for Climate Change, Climate Justice, and Health. “And how to mitigate some of the dangers.” 

Canadian wildfires are sending smoke south of the border, causing a hazy smog containing Particulate Matter 2.5, tiny particles that are 30 times smaller than a single strand of hair. “PM 2.5 is so small, it can only be seen with an electron microscope,” said Breakey. “That gets into the atmosphere along with other byproducts of the smoke, and it can get into your lungs, it can get into the bloodstream, and it can cause damage to people having system pulmonary disease or cardiac disease. It can also exacerbate asthma.”

Breakey shared her expertise with NBC Boston, which reported on the hazards caused by the windswept smoke. 

screengrab of sue ellen on nbc

“People at-risk include those with pre-existing conditions such as respiratory conditions, asthma, and chronic obstructive lung disease,” said Breakey. “Children are at risk, so are people who work outside, low-income communities and certain communities of color, which already bear the brunt of air pollution because of historical environmental injustices, and pregnant people because of the critical time around lung development in fetuses.”

Breakey outlined steps to take in curbing the exposure to poor air quality.

“One thing is to limit your time outdoors. If you’re exercising, do it indoors if you can. Try not to exert too much strenuous energy when you're outside in this kind of weather. Also, think about your indoor space and try to limit indoor air pollution. So, no burning fires, candles and for people who are very sensitive, think about getting an air purifier system using HEPA filters to limit the air pollution as well.”

With climate change a reality, Breakey says incidents like this will only increase.

“It’s a complex situation because as we have more extreme heat days, as well as days getting hotter because of climate change, this will contribute to drought, which will potentiate more wildfires,” said Breakey. “Sometimes it's hard to separate out one climate impact because they all really intersect with each other.”

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