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June 28, 2023

Canadian wildfires and air quality: MSU experts can comment on public health, climate change impacts

Wildfires in Canada are creating hazy skies and prompting air quality concerns from the Midwest to the East Coast. Michigan State University experts are available to comment.

Public Health

Robert Wahl is an environmental epidemiologist and assistant professor in the College of Human Medicine’s Charles Stewart Mott Department of Public Health. His research focuses on asthma surveillance, air pollutants' effects on asthma and adverse birth outcomes and the health effects of climate change.



“Smoke from the wildfires will likely have greater health effects on people who already experience poor air quality on a daily basis. Air pollutants have additive effects, so wildfire smoke adds to the daily exposure ofthe most vulnerable people,including children, pregnant women, the elderly, those with chronic health conditions such as asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD, and heart disease, and those living in low-income areas with higher levels of air pollution.


“As total exposures to air pollutants and smoke increase, the risk for severe health effects increases, and asthma attacks and heart attacks are more likely in those with asthma and heart disease. In addition to increasing numbers of wildfires due to climate change, ozone levels are likely to continue to increase in the summer months. Ozone is an airway irritant, and it is added on top of a person’s air pollution and wildfire smoke burden, increasing the number of asthma attacks among people with asthma and COPD.”


Robert Glandon is an instructor in the Master of Public Health Program in the College of Human Medicine. A former local public health director, he is an expert on community and environmental health assessment and improvement, including the examination of the relationships among built environments, health risk behaviors, access to care and health policy.


“Over the last several days, wildfires in Canada have caused outdoor air in some areas to appear hazy, due mostly to high concentrations of small particles from the fires. Poor air quality can be hazardous for people at high risk, such as people with heart or lung disease, older people, children, and people exerting themselves in prolonged activities outdoors.People at high risk should stay indoors during periods of poor air quality. If they go outside, it's a good idea for people at risk to wear a mask, such as a COVID mask."


“The Air Quality Index developed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is a composite measure of five components of air quality. Those components are: fine particles, ground-level ozone, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide and carbon monoxide. The website AirNow, shows the air quality for various places several times a day. It also indicates which of the five components is most responsible for the air quality rating. It is very informative, easy to use and accessible for anyone concerned about their local outdoor air quality.”

Climate and agriculture impacts

Jeff Andresen is a professor in MSU’s Department of Geography in the College of Social Science and is also the state climatologist for Michigan. He has professional experience with the National Weather Service and with the USDA's World Agricultural Outlook Board in Washington, D.C., where he was involved in international crop and weather impact assessment and production estimation. He currently serves as director of Michigan’s Enviroweather Information System which supports agricultural pest and production management-related decision-making across the state. Andreson is also an MSU Extension specialist maintaining an active outreach program that disseminates weather and climate data and information to the general public and provides continuing education activities. The primary focus of Andresen’s research has been the influence of weather and climate on agriculture, both in the U.S. and in international production areas.


Environmental communications

John Besley, the Ellis N. Brandt Professor of Public Relations in MSU’s College of Communication Arts and Sciences, studies public opinion about science and scientists’ opinions about the public. He researches how people’s perceptions about science and technology communicators can impact human health and the environment. Besley also examines how scientists’ perceptions about communication shape the choices they make when they share their research.



“When scientists talk about wildfire, it’s important to focus on more than just the risks. They should, instead, consider tying those risks to near- and long-term benefits of taking specific actions as well as the feasibility of taking these actions.”

Kelly Salchow MacArthur
is a professor of graphic design at MSU. MacArthur’s creative research explores environmental issues through the integration of different materials, technology and formats in graphic design. She uses her expertise in visual communications to inspire and support environmental action, which MacArthur views as fundamental and urgent to the survival of humankind and our ecosystems.


“The Canadian wildfires, and the smoke that is blanketing parts of the U.S., present clear evidence of climate change in the air we breathe. As temperatures rise, the many impacts of climate change are more obvious and harder to ignore. It is time for all of humanity to work together creatively, across cultures and disciplines to mobilize, and the communication around it must be clear. Graphic design is the medium through which text and image convey powerful messages to catalyze positive action toward the protection and nourishment of our planet in crisis. Whether through apps, posters, advertisements or information design, visual communication portrays big ideas to society and has the capacity to instigate change.”

Pets and wildlife

Seven Mattes is an assistant professor in the Center for Integrative Studies in the College of Social Science. Their work is focused on the intersection of disaster studies and animal studies.



“As we seek shelter indoors and limit outdoor activities for ourselves and our companion animals, attention might turn to the rest of the breathing world — wildlife. While wildfires are a natural occurrence, and wildlife and plants are adapted to persist, or even thrive in the aftermath, modern wildfires are burning much more than forests. The smoke that has smothered a multitude of states contains dangerous particles that have the potential to cause damage to bodies, be they human or non-human.”


“The consequences of these fires are illustrative of the non-human impacts of disaster and the unequal resources or strategies available for adaptation across species. Climate change is often discussed in human terms, given its anthropogenic causes, but as the haze traverses spatial and species boundaries, it is an important and stark reminder that climate change alters the lives of all members of our multispecies communities.”


Stephan A. Carey is an associate professor and associate chairperson of small animal internal medicine in the MSU College of Veterinary Medicine’s Department of Small Animal Clinical Sciences. He studies the mechanisms by which airborne pollutants cause respiratory airway injury and repair, the role of airway antioxidants in the repair process and small-animal respiratory diseases, with a focus on canine and feline nasal disease and small airway disease.



“Exposure of pets to outdoor air of this quality should be kept as low as possible, particularly during peak daylight hours when other air pollutant levels, such as photochemical smog and ambient temperatures, are also at higher levels. For indoor pets, walks should be kept brief to minimize exposure. In situations where ambient air exposure is unavoidable — for example, with working animals — the exposures should be scheduled for early mornings or late evenings when possible, and animals should be afforded longer recovery periods between events.”



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