'Unprecedented' air pollution hits the Richmond area from Canadian wildfires

Posted at 5:23 PM, Jun 08, 2023
and last updated 2023-06-08 17:24:17-04

RICHMOND, Va. — The Virginia Department of Emergency Management listed Richmond’s air quality in the “Red Zone” on Thursday as environmental scientists called the pollution “unprecedented” for the area.

“I’m seeing way less traffic today than I’m used to seeing,” resident Arlene Dickson told CBS 6 on Cary Street as thunder began to rumble overhead. “I’m not taking the long dog walk today, not going to the park, we’re in and out of stores taking it slow."

Experts said the haze in the air above Richmond is a product of wildfires in Canada.

Hazy Richmond poor air quality

Air Quality Index Meters showed high levels of a pollutant called PM2.5.

Readings in Downtown Richmond and parts of Chesterfield County climbed to 180 on Thursday, with Henrico County topping out closer to 200.

“Once you get over 150, that's when it kind of jumps into just an unhealthy condition for the general public,” Dr. Todd Lookingbill, Chairman of the Department of Geography, Environment and Sustainability at the University of Richmond, said.

By contrast, the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality lists the region’s air quality index for June 8 of last year as being in the high 40s.

Scientists said this will not be the last time we see this kind of air quality.

Hazy Richmond poor air quality

“There is a direct relationship between the events like these and climatic change, and so warmer, drier fires will burn bigger and create more pollution for sure,” Lookingbill said.

Medical doctors warn that anyone can become ill from air pollution but those with respiratory issues such as asthma or COPD should stay inside.

“Anyone [outside] for any prolonged period of time is going to start feeling something,” said Dr. Kyle Enfield, a pulmonologist at UVA Health. “They're going to start sneezing, having watery eyes, maybe have a cough. I would try to really limit that exposure time.”

Enfield encourages people who must be outside for an extended period to wear a mask to help prevent breathing in as many pollutants. He said the community needs to take precautions to prevent straining hospital systems.

“We know that when the air quality gets worse, a lot of things happened to people,” said Enfield. “We see an increased number of people coming to the hospital emergency room with breathing problems, strokes and heart attacks.”

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