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Air quality declines in Pittsburgh as smoke and haze from Canadian wildfires blanket metro area

A "code red" air pollution warning is in effect in Pittsburgh today, as more smoke from Canadian wildfires begins to blanket the region.

The National Weather Service has issued the warning for Allegheny, Armstrong, Beaver, Butler, Greene, Washington and Westmoreland counties until midnight tonight.

As of 11:30 a.m., Pittsburgh had an air quality index of 232 when it comes to particle pollution, which is considered "very unhealthy," according to AirNow.gov.

Code red alerts indicate that the air is unhealthy for the general population, and people should avoid outdoor exercise and strenuous activity.

Young children and the elderly, plus people with respiratory conditions, should avoid outdoor activities as the high concentrations of particulate matter can cause irritation and inflammation.

“It could trigger asthma attacks, it could trigger worsening of your COPD. It could even lead to increased inflammation in your blood vessels that eventually could lead to worsening of vascular diseases like coronary artery disease,” said Dr. Sally Wenzel, a pulmonologist and chair of the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health at the University of Pittsburgh School of Public Health.

Wenzel notes that people living in parts of the county that already have poor air quality, such as the Mon Valley, will be more impacted.

NWS meteorologist Jared Rackley says air quality will deteriorate this afternoon as the smoke moves past the Great Lakes and into the Pittsburgh area.

"In Erie, they've had really poor air quality since earlier yesterday, so we're expecting that smoke to work its way down through today and probably be at its worst some time in the evening period."

Rackley says, the smoke could affect air travel later today. "The Pitt airport observations are reduced several miles lower than they would be, just from the smoke already in the area."

Find your air quality index at airnow.gov.

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Updated: June 28, 2023 at 4:45 PM EDT
Updated with more info on the health effects of smoke.
Doug Shugarts is a 23-year veteran of broadcast news. Doug began his career at WBUR in Boston, where he worked on the nationally-syndicated programs “The Connection” and “Here and Now.” He won awards for best use of sound, coverage of the 2003 war in Iraq, and helped launch the station’s local news program, “Radio Boston.” In 2014 Doug moved across town to GBH and helped reboot morning news programming and launch other broadcast and web projects. Doug studied Composition at Berklee College of Music and Computer Science and Mathematics at the University of California. A resident of Pittsburgh’s Southside, Doug enjoys feasting on arepas and yucca fries at Cilantro and Ajo and meeting his canine neighbors at Big Dog Coffee.
Sarah Boden covers health and science for 90.5 WESA. Before coming to Pittsburgh in November 2017, she was a reporter for Iowa Public Radio. As a contributor to the NPR-Kaiser Health News Member Station Reporting Project on Health Care in the States, Sarah's print and audio reporting frequently appears on NPR and KFF Health News.