A Vermonter’s guide to wildfire smoke and air quality
Smoke from a record-breaking wildfire season in Canada has been degrading air quality over Vermont this year – and we could continue to feel impacts for months, depending on wind and other factors.
It’s the sort of event Vermont could see more of as the climate changes due to humans burning fossil fuels. Climate change is already making wildfires more frequent and more severe, and lengthening the season in which they occur – even in places like Quebec, where they are a naturally occurring part of the boreal forest ecosystem.
Vermont Public has assembled this guide from trustworthy sources and expert interviews to help you understand what’s happening and stay safe on hazy days.
If you have more questions, send us a message. This guide may be updated as more information becomes available.
Where can Vermonters find the latest air quality information?
The Environmental Protection Agency’s AirNow website is a helpful resource, featuring a map of current air quality at monitoring stations and sensors across Vermont. This is also where you’ll find the latest forecasts for air quality from the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation.
AirNow is also available as an app for your smartphone — look for EPA AirNow.
If you want to dig into the Vermont data even further, you can find air quality monitoring station reports from Burlington, Underhill, Rutland and Bennington at this website from the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation.
Finally, the National Weather Service in Burlington mixes air quality information with other weather updates on Twitter.
What makes wildfire smoke dangerous?
Wildfire smoke is made up of a LOT of different stuff. In fact, every forest fire is different, and different fire conditions can lead to variations in the chemical makeup of smoke. Generally you can expect carbon monoxide as well aspolycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, or PAHs, which are found in car exhaust, cigarette smoke and asphalt fumes – as well as pollen-sized particles called PM10.
But regardless of the chemical makeup of wildfire smoke, the big concern for human health are the very, very fine particles wildfire smoke carries, called PM2.5.
These are tiny particles, liquid or solid, that are smaller than 2.5 microns! They’re made when things combust, and they are SO small that they sneak into all sorts of places they shouldn’t be when we breathe them in.
They can get deep into your lungs or your bloodstream. They’ve even been found to be able to cross the placenta.
What is AQI?
The U.S. Air Quality Index is a tool used by the Environmental Protection Agency to describe air quality. It’s one way to understand how healthy or unhealthy the air is — and what you should to to minimize your exposure.
The index runs from 0 to 500; higher numbers are worse. The EPA uses AQI to give warnings about pollutants other than PM2.5 — they also use it to report ozone warnings.
It’s a good thing to get familiar with, as climate change is expected to increase the risk of large wildfires and other sources of air pollution.
How is AQI measured in Vermont?
There are four “official” air quality monitoring stations around the state, in Burlington, Underhill, Rutland and Brattleboro. Officials also use low-cost sensors in other parts of the state to keep an eye on PM2.5 and other pollutants regulated under the Clean Air Act in real time.
“We consider these sites representative of pretty much all areas that we would find in Vermont… while at the same time getting a certain amount of spacial coverage across the state,” says Bennett Leon, who leads this work at the Department of Environmental Conservation.
The DEC works with the National Weather Service in Burlington to issue air quality forecasts for the state. Leon says there are a lot of factors that affect air quality — geography being a big one.
Between a smattering of EPA sensors across the state and these four official sites, Leon and his colleagues predict air quality using wind and weather patterns.
One major hole in the data right now? The Northeast Kingdom. There are no monitors set up in that part of the state.
And while Vermont’s air quality has so far not reached levels like what New York City saw during the worst smoke events this year, Leon says it’s likely Burlington set a new record for worst air quality ever recorded in Vermont in late June when PM2.5 concentrations soared to 174 micrograms per cubic meter, equivalent to an AQI of 224 — making air quality “very unhealthy” for everyone.
The air quality is poor. What should I do?
There’s no perfect solution for wildfire smoke exposure, and most of the options available depend on having access to housing.
But on days when the air quality is bad enough that you, a member of your family or everyone needs to reduce their exposure, here are a few tips:
The best way to keep smoke out of your home is to keep windows shut and use your air conditioning (if it’s hot out!) on a setting that recirculates the air in your home, rather than pulling smoky air in from the outdoors.
Don’t have AC that recirculates? Close your windows and use a window unit. This still pulls air in from outside, but offers more filtration than an open window.
Don’t have AC at all? The EPA has resources on making DIY air filters for indoors using box fans, HEPA air filters and something to connect them, like duct tape or bungee cords.
Consider designating a “clean air room” in your home, where you keep the windows closed, so you or others can take a break from poor air quality. An air filter (look for one with a HEPA filter) can help with that.
Take care in high heat: The Vermont Department of Health warns that if you don’t have an air conditioner and the air quality is bad, it can be dangerous to stay inside with the windows closed on an extremely hot day. Going to a cooling centeror spending time in an indoor space with air conditioning, like a library, for a few hours can be good ways to take a break from the heat.
In a car
Roll your windows up and use the air conditioning on the recirculate setting.
Depending on the conditions and your risk, you may consider shortening the intensity and length of outdoor exercise (for example, go for a walk instead of a run).
If you have to spend time outdoors — or work outside — a good N95 or P100 mask can help reduce your exposure. But the Vermont Department of Health advises that this should be your last resort.
Which Vermonters are particularly susceptible to getting sick from exposure to air pollution?
Kids, teenagers and older adults are generally more susceptible, as well as:
- People with a history of heart or lung disease
- People who are pregnant
- People who work outside
- People who are experiencing homelessness or don’t have access to secure housing are at the highest risk when it comes to wildfire smoke
What are the symptoms of overexposure and when should I seek medical treatment?
Health impacts from air pollution can look different for everyone. They might depend on how much time you’ve spent outside, how much you’ve exerted yourself in that time and existing health conditions.
If you feel these symptoms, don’t be alarmed, but it’s time to think about how to reduce your exposure. If they stick around or get worse, consider calling your doctor:
- Eye irritation
- Scratchy throat
- Runny nose
- Irritated sinuses
If you feel these symptoms, you should call 9-1-1 or go to an emergency department:
- Wheezing or trouble breathing
- Cough that won’t stop
- Asthma attacks
- Rapid heartbeat
- Chest pain
- Other symptoms that worsen or don’t go away
What are the potential health impacts of this smoke?
The long-term effect of exposure to wildfire smoke on human health is still an area of active research, says David Grass, with Vermont Department of Health
Some studiesthat looked at the effects of exposures to wildfire smoke over time have found that repeated exposure was linked to an increased risk of premature death, respiratory illness and cancer risk.
However, there is robust evidence to show that chronic exposure to PM2.5 — again, that’s the stuff in wildfire smoke that’s really bad for human health — over weeks, months or even years can cause harm to your respiratory and cardiovascular system, increase your risk of heart attack or stroke, as well has negative birth outcomes for people who are pregnant.
A 2021 study by researchers at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography found that wildfire smoke is up to 10 times more harmful to humans than pollution like car exhaust because of PM2.5 particles.
The short-term impacts of exposure to wildfire smoke are much better understood.
Studies have shown that in the aftermath of a major smoke event, communities see increases in asthma attacks, COPD, respiratory infections, heart attack, heart failure, emergency department visits, hospital admissions and mortality overall.
But the Vermont Department of Health says taking measures to reduce your exposure can lower your risk.
“It’s about giving people the tools and building the systems in order to try to make sure that we’re not seeing increases in those health outcomes as a result of these episodic wildfire exposures,” Grass said.
What if I am experiencing homelessness, or if someone I know is?
"People who are experiencing homelessness generally experience disproportionately high rates of chronic illness, which includes things like diabetes, lung disease, respiratory illness, asthma, certain heart conditions. And so the people experiencing homelessness are already at a greater risk for things like poor air quality," says Rebekah Mott, director of development and communications of the Committee on Temporary Shelter in Burlington.
If you or someone you know is experiencing homelessness and are in the Burlington area, you can take a break from the smoke at a COTS facility – which all have air conditioning and air filtration systems. They also serve coffee, snacks, breakfast and lunch:
During the day:
- Burlington: The Daystation in the Old North End is open every day from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. It’s a great place to take a break from the smoke during the day.
- Burlington: The Waystation in Burlington is COTS’ overnight shelter for single adults. There are separate dormitories for men and women. COTS also has two family shelters in Burlington.
Have a resource to share about how service providers are helping people experiencing homelessness on smoky days in another part of the state? We’d love to include it. Send us a message.
What about my pets and animals?
The general consensus when it comes to pets is if you feel it, your pets do, too. When it comes to wildfire smoke, animals' respiratory track and eyes can be impacted, and they'll need help staying protected. Animals with heart or lung issues and older animals are at higher risk for smoke. Keep a close eye on your animals and try to limit their exposure as much as possible. Keep pets indoors as much as you can, and limit physical activity.
For larger animals and livestock, it may be harder to move them inside. Try to keep them in low-smoke areas and minimize their physical activity. Additionally, make sure to give them plenty of fresh water, and remember that it may take them weeks to recover from exposure.
Some signs that your pets may be overexposed are coughing or gagging, difficulty breathing, eye irritation or watering, nasal discharge, fatigue and disorientation.
Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message.