Eastern Iowa air gets worse as more Canadian wildfire smoke moves in

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DES MOINES — The air quality in parts of eastern Iowa may be the worst it’s -ever- been today and residents are being warned to dig out their N-95 masks that were popular during the pandemic if they’re doing anything strenuous outside.

Tom Russell, an environmental specialist in the Iowa DNR’s Air Quality Bureau, says the levels of “very unhealthy” air being recorded are, in his words, “nearly unprecedented.”  “We’re kind of used to seeing numbers this high in short-term spikes from fireworks, typically around the Fourth of July or something like that,” Russell says, “but we’ve had 24-hour averages that looks similar to what we see for a couple hours at a time when the fireworks smoke is really thick, so it’s quite bad.”

Most of the state is in the “unhealthy” category today but large areas of eastern Iowa are considered “very unhealthy,” according to the DNR, which has issued an air quality advisory statewide. Drifting smoke from Canadian wildfires is to blame, but just how long may this last? “My best guess right now is, all but very far, far eastern Iowa should be much clearer by tomorrow night,” Russell says, and he does -not- anticipate we’ll slip into the worst air quality category of “hazardous.”

Given how the weather patterns are shifting around the air, parts of western and southwestern Iowa are actually in the “good” category today, but for the majority of Iowa, Russell says it’s best to stay indoors for now.  “At these levels, even healthy people should probably avoid any strenuous outside work, if possible,” he says. “If people have an N-95 mask, it would probably help keep out the smallest particles.”

Many Iowans have outdoor plans for the Independence Day weekend, from boating and swimming to cycling and hiking. It’s still not clear how smoky the air may be for the four-day holiday, but Russell suggests we may have to prepare for the long haul. “Fires are out of control, and until the fires are in control, or until fire season winds down, we may experience this off and on through the summer.”

Real-time air quality maps and information about the air quality index can be found here: https://www.iowadnr.gov/Environmental-Protection/Air-Quality