It’s a beautiful day out, at least on paper. It’s just under 70, sunny and breezy on what should be a perfect June day in Chicago. But a thick haze has covered the city and suburbs, and driven Chicagoans off beaches, inside from rooftop bars, and into their homes.
Its source? The wildfires in Canada’s most destructive wildfire season on record, are still burning strong, and now the toxic effects have descended upon the Midwest. Residents of Chicago, nearby suburbs, collar counties, and in some cases as far away as the Wisconsin border, started reporting “chemical and burning smells” on small town Facebook groups and apps yesterday. Today’s outlook on the same issue was easy to see, with a pea-soup thick haze hanging over the city skyline, making everything dystopic and almost dreamlike.
Unfortunately, it’s a nightmare, as the air quality is not only the worst air quality we’ve ever seen, according to world renowned Chicago meteorologist Tom Skilling (via WGN weather producer Bill Synder), who’s served Chicago with some of the most reliable, in depth and interesting weather reports in the world, but the worst air quality in the world, today.
It’s a dark superlative to be hanging over our heads, and the air poses serious threats to anyone with respiratory conditions and chronic medical conditions, but also, and importantly, to everyone, with mayors of small towns, as well as newly elected Brandon Johnson calling for residents to abandon plans for outdoor activities, avoid strenuous outdoor activities, and really, just stay inside. Though the threat is different it feels familiar after pandemic lockdowns, although some of the mitigation efforts are similar - masks and air filtration.
"For additional precautions, all Chicagoans may also consider wearing masks, limiting their outdoor exposure, moving activities indoors, running air purifiers, and closing windows," Johnson said in a statement. "As these unsafe conditions continue, the City will continue to provide updates and take swift action to ensure that vulnerable individuals have the resources they need to protect themselves and their families."
Officials advise that masks should be KN95, N95 quality, or better. Surgical and other DIY masks will not help filter the particulates from wildfires. People who have air purifiers or can afford to purchase them are encouraged to use them. People also may want to consider building a Corsi–Rosenthal Box, a DIY filtration system made from HVAC filters and box fans, developed by Richard Corsi, an environmental engineer and the incoming Dean of Engineering at the University of California, Davis.
These are warnings and advice we should pay heed to. Though we’ve faced bad air quality days in the past here in Chicago, especially in the muggy warmth of summer, as Skilling so simply put it, it’s the worst he’s ever seen in his 45 years, and as the various weather app warnings are proclaiming on phones all around the area, the air is categorically unhealthy and should be avoided without proper filtrations.
Dr. Ravi Kalhan, deputy division chief of pulmonary and critical care medicine at Northwestern Medicine, told NBC5 that the air quality in the area is the equivalent of smoking half a pack of cigarettes a day.
As climate change worsens, wildfires like those still raging in Canada are likely to continue to cause widespread effects. Those same fires turned the skies in New York City orange earlier this month, and pollutants in the air reached ratings of between 300 and 400 in some cases. New Yorkers could see the same problem again this week, along with Philadelphia, Louisville, the Quad Cities, and several other locations in the Northeast and Midwest. People on the West Coast - long plagued by similar wildfires - have been offering up advice to those in the other parts of America who are more recently affected.
It can be easy to ignore warnings like this, but we urge you to not only think of your own health and safety in this situation, but the actions we can take as individuals, towns and nations to help fight further environmental damage.