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Chicago skyline with smoky air

person walks along the shore of Lake Michigan as the downtown skyline is blanketed in haze from Canadian wildfires on June 27, 2023. Scientists say smoky summers will likely be worse in future years because of climate change.

Kiichiro Sato

The EPA says 'conditions are ripe' for an active wildfire season -- and smoky air

Two experts from the regional EPA office join WBEZ to tell us what we can expect. Reporter: Lauren Frost; Host: Melba Lara

Smoky air blowing in from Canadian wildfires plagued Chicago last summer. By year’s end, the city had experienced some of the worst air quality in the nation. A report from the Swiss company IQAir found Chicago was the second-most polluted major city in the U.S. in 2023 — only Columbus, Ohio, was higher.

Two experts from our regional office of the Environmental Protection Agency, Katie Siegel, an Air Toxics and Assessments branch manager, and Michael Compher, an air monitoring and analysis section supervisor, recently joined WBEZ to discuss what we can expect this summer.

What is the outlook for this summer? Are the conditions right for a repeat of last year’s smoky air?

Katie Siegel: While we don’t have a crystal ball, I will say that conditions are ripe for another active wildfire season this summer. This is due to the ongoing impacts of climate change. It was a warm winter with less snowpack and, you know, all these factors contribute to increased fires.

The report that ranks Chicago so high on the list of polluted cities was looking at something called PM 2.5. Can you explain what that is and how it can affect people?

Michael Compher: As of right now, it’s up in the air and they can be emitted from a number of sources, including wildfires. PM 2.5 is much smaller than even the width of a human hair. One of the reasons we’re concerned about it is that it can travel deep into the lungs and contribute to health impacts. [People] with respiratory and lung diseases are especially impacted by PM 2.5.

This year, the EPA announced it was lowering the amount of exposure to PM 2.5 the agency will allow from 12 mcg per cubic meter to 9 mcg. Does wildfire smoke make it hard to hit that new standard?

Michael Compher: You are correct. EPA did strengthen the air quality standard this year. This will provide increased public health protection and is consistent with the available science that relates human health to air pollution. The Clean Air Act and the EPA’s Exceptional Event rule does provide a framework for us to address air quality data that’s impacted by wildfire smoke. We work with our states to identify times in which our air quality is impacted by wildfire smoke, and we take that into account when determining whether and when areas are violating or are attaining our air quality standards.

If we see more poor air quality days in Chicago this summer, what’s your advice for people to stay healthy?

Katie Siegel: I think the biggest thing is to plan ahead. The EPA has many great resources and tools out there. I’d encourage everyone to download the Air Now app, and you can visit Airnow.gov. What that allows us to do is have real-time information about air quality, and you can see what it’s projected to be over the next few days — and you can plan ahead

A lot of times, climate change and air pollution feel like something none of us can do anything about. Is there anything that we can do as individuals?

Katie Siegel: I think there are a lot of things we can do as individuals. It can be as simple as thinking about your diet. It can be looking at your home. Is it as energy efficient as it could be? I think there are things, you know, big and small that we can all do to lower our carbon footprint.

Lauren Frost is WBEZ’s afternoon news producer. Follow her @frostlaur.

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