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Experts say, in the garden, wildfire smoke is not problematic. Climate change is.

Smoke and haze from the Canadian wildfires hang over Pittsburgh on June 28, 2023.
Oliver Morrison
90.5 WESA
Smoke and haze from the Canadian wildfires hang over Pittsburgh on June 28, 2023.

While smoke from Canadian wildfires blanketing the region last week kept many residents inside, experts say the air pollution wouldn’t have caused problems for garden plants.

“Any backyard produce like fruits and vegetables, they really won't absorb any smoke,” said Maria Wheeler-Dubas, the science education outreach manager at Phipps Conservatory. “Maybe just rinse or wash off any produce before eating, just in case there's any particulates on there.”

Ash left behind by the smoke could block the pores in plants' leaves, Wheeler-Dubas said, inhibiting their ability to absorb and release the gasses needed for photosynthesis, and limiting their access to sunshine.

But the few days of smoke exposure the region experienced last week, Wheeler-Dubas said, was likely not enough to pose a serious threat.

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Sally Wenzel, chair of the University of Pittsburgh’s Department of Environmental and Occupational Health, said the wildfire smoke was relatively harmless in its composition, likening it to burning wood in someone’s yard.

But if the smoke had been derived from industrial sources, the likelihood of long-term effects on human and plant health could increase. Earlier this year, the American Lung Association found particle pollution in the Pittsburgh metro area had worsened by both 24-hour and year-round measures.

“So if you put that on top of the wildfires, on top of chronic problems that we have in this area, then I think there is an expectation that you could have longer-term impacts on [the] development of lung disease and cardiovascular disease,” Wenzel said.

Wildfire intensification, rather than smoke, is the primary concern

As of Monday, more than 500 active fires throughout Canada had burned through approximately 20 million acres — roughly 16 times the country’s 10-year average. More smoke is expected to return to northern parts of the U.S. this week.

Both Wenzel and Wheeler-Dubas urged residents to consider the conditions driving the episodes of smoky air pollution as they continue to plague the region, including climate change.

“I think we have to think about the big picture of what is driving some of these changes and what the impact on our world is going to be if we don't address some of the challenges of climate change,” Wenzel said.

Jillian Forstadt is an education reporter at 90.5 WESA. Before moving to Pittsburgh, she covered affordable housing, homelessness and rural health care at WSKG Public Radio in Binghamton, New York. Her reporting has appeared on NPR’s Morning Edition.