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Canada Wildfire Smoke Poses Health Threat to Black and Low-Income Communities in the US

Rising health risks in US Black, poorer communities as smoke from Canada wildfires spreads. Learn more about the impact and concerns.
In Chicago, Illinois, on June 27, 2023, a jogger can be seen running along the Lake Michigan shoreline, while heavy smoke from the Canadian wildfires fills the background.
Latest Updates: Smoke from Canada's wildfires blanketed large parts of the United States, including Minnesota, New York, and Kentucky. The smoky air worsened health risks for individuals already affected by industrial pollution, hitting low-income and minority communities the hardest. Detroit, a predominantly Black city with a poverty rate of around 30%, experienced some of the most severe air quality deterioration, leading the Environmental Protection Agency to advise everyone to remain indoors.

Darren Riley, who came to Detroit a few years ago, explained that with every breath you take, you are actually breathing in a combination of fire and camp smoke. He shared this insight while discussing his asthma diagnosis in 2018.

According to Darren Riley, who is Black, many communities regularly experience these challenges. The burden of wildfire smoke is not new, as communities have been facing it day in and day out for far too long.

Cities like Chicago, Detroit, Indianapolis, and Cleveland currently have "very unhealthy air" according to the EPA's website. The effects are spreading to Pittsburgh, St. Louis, and Louisville, with a wider area experiencing unhealthy air.

Earlier this month, the U.S. East Coast was covered in smoke from the wildfires for several days.

As per National Weather Service meteorologist Byran Jackson, the smoke from the wildfires is currently progressing through western Pennsylvania and central New York, heading towards the Mid-Atlantic region. In Canada, Environment and Climate Change Canada meteorologist Steven Flisfeder has projected the smoke to spread across Quebec and Ontario in the upcoming days.

In the United States, the smoke is compounding air quality challenges for impoverished and Black communities, which already face a higher likelihood of residing near polluting industrial facilities and living in rental housing with triggers such as mold.

The southwest side of Detroit is home to many large refineries and manufacturing plants, which contribute to its status as one of the poorest areas in the city. A 2022 report by the American Lung Association revealed that Detroit's short-term particle pollution levels were among the highest in the nation.

Dr. Ruma Srivastava, a pediatric pulmonologist at Children's Hospital of Michigan in Detroit, emphasized the challenge of controlling the environmental impact of being in close proximity to these refineries. The exposure to such surroundings increases the risk of asthma flare-ups, making it crucial for individuals to adhere to air quality safety recommendations.

Inspired by his own experiences, Darren Riley established JustAir, an organization dedicated to monitoring air pollution.

Riley expressed the importance of recognizing that one's birthplace or family background should not determine unequal access to a healthy environment, irrespective of ZIP code or skin color.

According to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Milwaukee County Emergency Medical Services has observed an increase in respiratory-related calls, with a significant proportion - 54.8% - coming from Black individuals, despite them making up only 27.1% of the county's population. In Chicago, Mayor Brandon Johnson advised vulnerable residents to spend more time indoors and assured swift action to support their protection. President Joe Biden, during his visit to Chicago, emphasized the Canadian wildfires as clear evidence of climate change.

Minnesota issued a record-breaking 23rd air quality alert, while Michigan, Wisconsin, Indiana, and other states also warned about air quality. The smoke from the wildfires contains small particles that can irritate the eyes, nose, and throat, as well as affect the heart and lungs, making breathing more difficult. The ongoing fires and resulting smoke pose concerns for both Canadians and Americans. The University of Washington's Joel Thornton highlighted that climate change will lead to hotter, longer heatwaves and more significant, smokier fires in the future.

Quentin Hernandez, an event planner from Detroit, experienced the smoky conditions firsthand while skateboarding near the Ambassador Bridge. He described the smoke lingering in the air, comparing the scent to that of a barbecue.