As the air quality index in Madison edged into “very unhealthy” levels on Tuesday, Freedom Inc. released an “open letter and call to action,” drawing attention to those most vulnerable to the impacts of the smoke-filled air.

“The worsening air quality is a health equity issue that disproportionately affects marginalized communities, including Black people, people of color, refugees, immigrants, and poor people,” the group wrote. These communities, it added, also “have less access to resources like filtered air ventilation, air purifiers, masks, and health insurance that would protect them from poor air quality.”

Freedom Inc., a Black and Southeast Asian nonprofit organization that works with low-income communities of color on social justice issues, said it was fielding requests for M95 masks and air purifiers from elderly community members as well as those with children. 

Massive wildfires in Canada have caused a smoky haze to spread across Wisconsin and other states in the Midwest. The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources issued an air quality advisory across the state Monday that will last through noon on Thursday. On Wednesday afternoon, the index reached 285, considered a dangerous level. 

While most will notice the smog and smell of fire in the air, certain populations are more likely to experience health issues on poor air quality days, confirms Dr. Eric Schauberger, an allergist and immunologist at UW Health. “There definitely are some health disparities that are involved in this,” he says.

The patients most prone to health risks are those with underlying cardiac and pulmonary issues, Schauberger adds. Patients with such respiratory issues as asthma may experience exacerbated symptoms, which can present as heavy breathing, coughing, wheezing, shortness of breath and exercise intolerance.

In Wisconsin, approximately 512,000 people have asthma. A 2020 report by the state Department of Health Services found that Black residents are 1.5 times more likely than white residents to have asthma, and American Indian residents are twice as likely to have asthma.

Schauberger says his office has been busy since the air quality started plummeting. “We have had an increased number of phone calls recently as a result of some increased symptoms from the air quality,” Schauberger says. “Also phone calls from families and patients that are concerned about the air quality and what they need to do to help protect themselves or their children.”

Freedom Inc.’s letter requests that Dane County and city officials issue emergency shelter-at-home orders whenever the Air Quality Index is above 151 and require that the Capitol Building and other government buildings be open to unhoused people, among other things.

In a press release Tuesday, Public Health Madison and Dane County said it was encouraging local shelters to welcome more people while the air quality advisory is in place. And today the agency said it had worked with Dane County Emergency Management to establish clean air respite centers where residents residents can pick up free masks. Locations include Christ Presbyterian Church, 944 E. Gorhan St.; Bethany United Methodist Church, 3910 Mineral Point Rd.; Beth Israel Center, 1406 Mound St.; and Midvale Lutheran, 4329 Tokay Blvd. Public Health Madison and Dane County is offering free masks at their East Washington and South Park Street offices.

Jeanette Kowalik, who worked in public health in Wisconsin for more than 20 years and now owns a consulting firm in Chicago, points out that people who have had COVID — or who have long COVID — may also be disproportionately impacted by the bad air quality because their lungs are compromised. “So it's going to be more challenging for people,” she says.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found 19% of American adults who reported having had COVID in the past have symptoms of long COVID — COVID symptoms at least three months after a COVID infection that last for at least two months.

Even those who do not have underlying respiratory issues can experience symptoms like coughing, trouble breathing, stinging eyes and a scratchy throat. To help mitigate symptoms, health officials recommend wearing N95 and KN95 masks to limit inhalation of particulate matter from the fires. 

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