'It's unhealthy for everyone': Lingering wildfire smoke affects more than just at-risk groups

Jun. 29—Air quality advisories in response to lingering smoke from Canadian wildfires have focused on at-risk groups — young children, the elderly and people with existing pulmonary and heart issues.

But, on Thursday, the Pittsburgh Pirates delayed the start of an early afternoon game by 45 minutes while they reviewed weather and atmospheric data with representatives of Major League Baseball and its players' union.

Ultimately, they decided to play ball, and the Pirates defeated the San Diego Padres, 5-4, after 2 1/2 hours on the field amid the haze-filled PNC Park.

The team reviewed conditions before Wednesday's game, as well. And, experts say that's a good idea. Because, after the air quality index reaches a certain level of pollution and particulate matter, it's just not good for anyone to breathe.

"At this point, when you see the air quality index above 150, that means it's unhealthy for everyone," said Patrick Campbell, executive director at Group Against Smog & Pollution Pittsburgh, a nonprofit formed in 1969. "It doesn't matter if you're an athlete. It doesn't matter what your health situation is. The air you're breathing is not healthy."

"Particulate matter" has an innocuous ring to it, but, in reality, it is trillions of microscopic pieces of burned forest that can pick up additional pollutants on their journey from Canada to the Northeastern U.S., where a low-pressure weather system has kept wildfire smoke in the region for days.

"The issue is that particulate matter is so small and light that, whenever you're breathing the air, your body has very few options to protect you and keep it out," Campbell said.

The variety of chemicals present in wildfire smoke raises health concerns, said Dr. Maureen Lichtveld, dean of the University of Pittsburgh School of Public Health.

"What makes it dangerous is that it's not only one type of contaminant," she said, comparing the smoke to a mixed latte drink with coffee, cream, milk and sugar blended. "It's a mixture of contaminants and particles that often attach pollutants to it."

And, while symptoms vary from person to person, Campbell said the average healthy adult still should limit outdoor activities as long as the air quality is so poor.

"The kind of symptoms a healthy person can experience are an asthma attack, wheezing, burning eyes," he said. "And the concern isn't just 'I'm outside and it's making me cough.' It's the concern about how much pollution you're breathing in and its effects over time."

In Penn Township, members of the citizens' group Protect P-T have air quality monitors in place to observe conditions around the township's drilling operations.

Two of the group's air quality monitors showed readings above 200 on Thursday afternoon. Its data is fed into the website along with monitored sites across southwestern Pennsylvania.

The worst air quality in the region, a reading of 256 about 3:30 p.m. on Thursday, originated from a monitor near the intersection of Route 8 and Harts Run Road in Hampton Township.

Campbell said anyone venturing outdoors when the air quality index is 150 or above would be well-advised to limit their time outside if possible and wear a proper-fitting mask of N-95 quality or better.

"They'll at least help reduce the particulate matter you're breathing in," he said.

Allegheny County Health Department officials issued a Code Orange air-quality advisory for Friday, projecting a moderate level of particulate matter in the air — in the area of 100 on the index.

For the latest air quality readings, see the or websites.

Patrick Varine is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Patrick by email at or via Twitter .