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This week's wildfire smoke may not be the last haze to hang over the Peoria area this summer

Camryn Cutinello

Wildfire smoke is clearing out of the Peoria area, but it may be too soon to breathe a sigh of relief.

Dr. Vijay Limaye is an epidemiologist and former U.S. Environmental Protection Agency scientist who now works with the Natural Resources Defense Council. He says an area roughly half the size of the state of Illinois is burning in Canada.

"We've had an off-the-charts wildfire situation in Canada this month," he said. "So right now, we have 500 active fires burning across Canada. More than half of those are out of control."

P.M 2.5 has been the primary pollutant of concern over the past few days. Limaye said those fine particles are 30 times smaller than the width of a human hair.

"The size is really important because they're able to essentially bypass our body's natural defense mechanisms. They're so small that they enter deep into our respiratory tract when we breathe in. From there, they are able to enter the bloodstream and inflict damage on a whole range of organ systems, including the heart and the brain," he said.

P.M 2.5 are the particles emitted by smokestacks and vehicle tailpipes, but Limaye said wildfire smoke is a particularly noxious blend.

"Wildfire smoke is actually a pretty toxic soup of multiple different air pollutants. And for that reason, we're especially concerned," he said.

Headaches and sore throats are among some of the common symptoms of wildfire smoke exposure, but people with asthma, COPD, or heart disease are at greater risk.

He says while there's a lot of science around the dangerous short-term health impacts of wildlife smoke exposure, researchers are still studying the longer-term repercussions of cumulative, repeated exposures over multiple days.

Limaye said wildfire smoke blanketing the Midwest portends a larger issue.

"It's really important for people to understand that this is a visual confirmation, this is a symptom of the climate change crisis, right? Climate change creates the conditions on the ground that make wildfires start sooner, last longer, and become harder to contain," he said.

Limaye said while climate change may not be starting the fires, it's fanning the flames and escalating wildfires that may have been manageable in prior years.

"We'll have to see what happens in the next few months. But I think it's too early to let our guard down. And we do need to understand that this is part of what scientists have been telling us what happened for years, right, and we still have an opportunity to address the problem," he said. "But time is running short."

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Tim is the News Director at WCBU Peoria Public Radio.