CHICAGO — Some Chicagoans who faced last week’s smoky skies say they’ve since been struck with the sniffles as the state crosses an unfortunate milestone: the most forecasted days of unhealthy air pollution in more than 10 years.
And there’s still half of 2023 to go.
The Illinois Environmental Protection Agency issued an “Air Pollution Action Day” for the Chicago area through Wednesday, its 13th such designation this year, spokesperson Kim Biggs said.
The caution is given when air quality is forecasted as “unhealthy for sensitive groups” for two or more consecutive days.
The 13 air pollution advisories through the first half of this year is the highest number since before 2012, when 12 air pollution action days were recorded. Last year saw only one Air Pollution Action Day. There were four in 2021, 10 in 2020 and none in 2019.
This year’s air pollution warnings have all come in the last three months, with one in May, 11 in June and another Wednesday, Biggs said.
The number of hazardous air quality days is concerning as the planet suffers from an increasingly unwieldy climate, which clocked its hottest day ever recorded worldwide Monday, said Anastasia Montgomery, a climate change researcher at Northwestern University.
But Chicago’s “Air Pollution Action Day” spike could also be “a sign of bad luck,” as haze from unprecedented Canadian wildfires sweep through the U.S., Montgomery said. Chicago’s air quality ranked as the worst of the world’s major cities last week.
That smoky air — combined with an increase in ozone emissions typically seen in the summer — has created a perfect storm for days of high air pollution, Montgomery said.
“I’m hesitant to draw conclusions because we expect variability in air pollution numbers year-over-year,” Montgomery said. “But if we zoom out, and don’t do anything to change our behavior, air quality will certainly continue to degrade.”
Montgomery added that one freak natural disaster has seemed to help clear away another: Chicago’s historic summer flooding and rain on Sunday has “cleared out” some of the air pollution.
The researcher suspects the worst of the city’s dangerous air is behind us, for now.
“We’re not totally out of the woods as long as it’s the summertime, when we see the most ‘Air Pollution Action Days,'” Montgomery said. “People who are sensitive to air pollution should continue to keep an eye out.”
Northwestern Medicine has seen a 10 percent increase in calls to its lung clinic since smoke started rolling through the city, spokesperson Michelle Green said.
Patients at Advocate Health Care clinics with asthma and emphysema have been “needing some additional care,” executive medical director Dr. Paul Coogan said.
But Advocate clinics and Rush University Medical Center has not seen substantial spikes in new respiratory cases, doctors there said.
The city’s air quality is already poor, posing recurring risks to those with underlining conditions — especially on the city’s South and West Sides and near its highways, said Dr. Yanina A. Purim-Shem-Tov, a medical director at Rush.
“We’re going to get back to our baseline levels, but our numbers of cases are quite high to begin with,” Purim-Shem-Tov said. “There’s increased congestion and highway traffic and in those hardest hit spots, we’re seeing more children with asthma.”
Some Chicagoans said they’ve gotten sick since the city’s smokiest days, but not seriously enough to go to a doctor or the hospital.
Lindsey Sowell said she took her 2-year-old son to the park last week as haze started to tint the city. The family has had runny noses, headaches, coughs and congestion ever since.
“It’s harder to protect him when he’s too little to wear a mask,” Sowell said. “It’s been frustrating when the weather is finally warm and you want to be outside with your kid.”
Wicker Park resident Karina Parada said she ran errands last week and caught a cough and sore throat soon after. She took a day off work.
“They weren’t kidding when they said stay indoors,” Parada said. “I’ve been talking to my colleagues about feeling under the weather, and it seriously is a thing.”
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