CHICAGO — Chicago’s air quality, which has been among the worst on Earth this week, is expected to improve in the coming days as a storm system sweeps smoke out of the region.
But the breathing difficulties and long-term health concerns all Chicagoans have experienced this week are nothing new for residents in the city’s most polluted neighborhoods, health and environmental experts say.
Now, those experts are calling on leaders and residents not to lose sight of the need to take action to reduce carbon emissions — and to keep exploring the cumulative impacts of pollution and climate change once the smoke clears.
‘We Will Ultimately Not See Equal Impacts’
Chicago had the worst air quality of any major city in the world for much of Tuesday. Residents continued to experience “very unhealthy” air quality levels Wednesday and into Thursday.
The poor air quality is caused by wildfire smoke that’s traveled down from Canada and impacted large portions of the United States.
Though all Chicagoans are being exposed to this week’s smoke, “we will ultimately not see equal impacts” from community to community, Anastasia Montgomery, a climate change researcher at Northwestern University, said this week.
“People who are chronically exposed to higher levels of pollution are going to be extra triggered by this kind of polluting event,” Montgomery said.
Disparities in air pollution are well-documented in Chicago.
Montgomery recently led a team of researchers in running the first neighborhood-level simulation of air pollution in Chicago, which found communities near expressways are most polluted with fine particulate matter, like smoke and dust.
The city’s Air Quality and Health Report also found in 2020 that South and West side communities “bisected by major highways with high concentrations of industry” are overburdened with pollution.
Residents in these overburdened communities are “already coping with high levels of [particulate matter], ozone and high temperatures in urban heat islands,” said Vijay Limaye, senior climate and health scientist for the Natural Resources Defense Council.
“Add [wildfire] smoke on top of that, and we can have compounding effects,” Limaye said. “People who have been historically burdened by air pollution often suffer from chronic heart or lung diseases, which makes them especially vulnerable to added threats like smoke.”
Beyond the neighborhood disparities, delivery workers, gig workers, construction and maintenance crews and other professions are likely to be more impacted by the poor air quality, experts said.
“There’s a certain segment of the population that does not have the luxury to work from home, so they can’t necessarily follow the public health recommendations being made,” Limaye said.
Employers should treat the smoke as if it were an “extreme heat day, but instead of water breaks, [give workers] breaks indoors,” Illinois state climatologist Trent Ford said.
Workers should also “wear masks if possible, to limit exposure to poor air quality,” he said.
Mayor Brandon Johnson highlighted the unequal environmental burdens and called for continued climate justice work in a statement Wednesday.
“Vulnerable communities in Chicago bear a continuously heavier burden from climate-exacerbated extreme weather,” Johnson said.
The mayor’s comments came just hours before a scheduled public meeting about the city’s ongoing cumulative impact assessment, a study to see how environmental, health and social factors combine to impact community wellbeing.
The meeting on the assessment to identify neighborhoods most impacted by industry and pollution was canceled hours before it was set to begin Wednesday, due to air quality concerns.
City officials must complete the cumulative impact assessment by Sept. 1 as part of a settlement with the federal government, after the feds found the city’s clustering of industrial facilities violated Southeast Siders’ civil rights.
“A lot of our health science is organized pollutant by pollutant,” Limaye said. “But the truth is, people are breathing in all types of pollutants at the same time. … We need to shift to a cumulative impacts mindset to understand, interpret and counteract these multiple impacts.”
Chicago’s air quality is forecasted to improve from Wednesday’s “very unhealthy” levels of particulate matter to “unhealthy” Thursday, according to the federal air quality forecast.
The rating is expected to further improve to “unhealthy for sensitive groups” on Friday and turn to “moderate” over the weekend. Storms expected this weekend will likely change the prevailing wind direction and move smoke out of Chicago, Ford said.
The weather pattern changes “will hopefully limit or reduce the amount of health impacts that are happening” by the week’s end, he said.
But it will take “a little while” to fully understand how this week’s poor air quality has impacted Chicagoans’ health — and their wallets, Limaye said.
“There’s all sorts of economic disruption that’s going to flow from the events of this week,” including costs of visits to urgent care centers, doctors’ offices and emergency rooms as vulnerable Chicagoans deal with asthma attacks, worsening respiratory issues and more, he said.
“It’s not just the health tolls of this dangerous air,” Limaye said.
The smoky skies come at an especially bad time just one week before July Fourth, as fireworks typically make the holiday “the worst air pollution day in the year,” Montgomery said.
“Hopefully this [wildfire smoke] should clear itself out before July 4, but we’re basically going to go from a wildfire event to an event that fireworks use will [cause pollution] spikes all over the city,” she said.
In the longer term, Chicagoans can likely expect “a few bouts like this over the course of the next several months,” Ford said.
Even once wildfires are extinguished, the negative impacts of these smoky days can “shine a spotlight on places that have these chronic air quality problems,” he said.
“In a few days, when air quality region-wide has improved, there will be parts of the city that will still be dealing” with poor air quality, Ford said. “It’s an opportunity to reflect on ways to improve air quality conditions across the board.”
The Chicago area’s ozone levels also continue to violate federal standards, and as a result the area faces stricter federal regulations on air pollution.
“The alarming air quality readings over the course of the last two days prove that all Chicagoans must keep their guard up,” Johnson said.
This week’s smoke is “a wakeup call that climate change is not just about electric vehicles and solar panels and polar bears,” Limaye said. “This is very much a life-or-death human health issue.
“Until we stop adding climate pollutants to the atmosphere, this problem is headed in only one direction: Worse impacts from fires, heat and flooding,” Limaye said.
How Can You Keep Yourself — And Your Pets — Safe This Week?
People without access to “properly ventilated and safe indoor conditions” can visit public libraries, senior centers and Park District facilities for relief, Ald. Lamont Robinson (4th) said in a statement.
Six community service centers citywide are also open from 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday-Friday, except for the Garfield Center, which is open 24 hours. They are:
- Englewood Center, 1140 W. 79th St.
- Garfield Center, 10 S. Kedzie Ave.
- King Center, 4314 S. Cottage Grove Ave.
- North Area Center, 845 W. Wilson Ave.
- South Chicago Center, 8650 S. Commercial Ave.
- Trina Davila Center, 4312 W. North Ave.
Pets are also at risk of illness and may have a lack of energy or a greatly reduced appetite due to the poor air quality, PAWS Chicago spokesperson Thomas McFeeley said. Coughing, wheezing, panting, vomiting and diarrhea are other signs that an animal is being impacted, he said.
Pet owners are advised to keep pets indoors as much as possible, keep windows shut and fans on, ensure pets have enough water and only let dogs outside for brief bathroom breaks during air quality watches and warnings, McFeeley said.
For more information on how to stay safe from the unhealthy air, click here.