Wildfire smoke impacts University of Minnesota student health

Smoke from fires in California and Canada has traveled to Minnesota.

Julie Garvin poses outside of Moos Tower where the majority of her nursing studies are conducted. Garvin developed respiratory symptoms in August, leading her to believe that poor air quality linked to recent wildfires are the cause for her symptoms.

Jack Rodgers

Julie Garvin poses outside of Moos Tower where the majority of her nursing studies are conducted. Garvin developed respiratory symptoms in August, leading her to believe that poor air quality linked to recent wildfires are the cause for her symptoms.

Nikki Pederson

Smoke from western wildfires has been traced almost 1,500 miles away, as several students have reported respiratory issues at the end of the summer in Minnesota.

The smoke from California’s Mendocino Complex fires and multiple Canadian fires are leaving some people across the country, including University of Minnesota students, feeling sick and confused as to why they are experiencing respiratory issues.

Wildfire plumes traveling long distances is not an uncommon occurrence, said Jesse Berman, an assistant professor of environmental health science at the University.

“Air pollution doesn’t respect state or national borders,” Berman said.

University senior Julie Garvin started developing a cough and congestion in August, but had no other symptoms.

“I had no fever, chills or anything that would suggest it was not allergies,” Garvin said.

As a nursing student who works in a women’s clinic with vulnerable populations, Garvin is careful about monitoring her health.

“It’s critically important that we don’t come in [to work] when we’re sick,” she said. “And I feel like I have a lot of background to know whether I’m sick or not.”

Other students, like University graduate student Allison Anding, experienced similar respiratory symptoms such as headaches and sore throats. Like Garvin, Anding attributed the symptoms to allergies.

“I wasn’t terribly alarmed at first,” Anding said. “They were familiar symptoms, but at a weird time.”

It wasn’t until Anding heard on the radio that the western wildfires were likely causing local air quality issues that she began to connect the dots.

Eight air quality alerts have been issued from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency in 2018, with six of those alerts appearing in the month of August alone, said David Brown, a MPCA meteorologist. This is the largest number of air quality alerts the MPCA has issued since they started their alert system in 2010, he said.

Inside smoke is fine particulate matter that goes deep inside a person’s lungs when inhaled, Berman said. These particulates, like ozone and other air pollutants, affect all individuals.

Health officials agree that poor air quality can affect anyone, but that vulnerable communities are more at risk.

“People with chronic medical conditions, particularly heart or lung disease, are at risk for becoming ill during air quality alerts,” said Mark Sprenkle, a pulmonary division director at Hennepin County Medical Center, in an emailed statement to the Minnesota Daily.

“Older adults and young children are also at greater risk of developing health problems, including bronchitis, eye irritation and runny nose,” he said.

As the fires have become more contained, the air quality alerts have decreased.

“I’m pretty optimistic that this isn’t going to be a huge catastrophe,” Anding said. “I’m feeling pretty positive.”