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How residents of Baltimore are coping with the smoke coming from Canada

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

This week the Northeast and the mid-Atlantic dealt with some of the worst air quality for the area in recorded history. The culprit - smoke from wildfires in Canada wafting south. WYPR's Scott Maucione tells us how residents have coped and when relief might come.

SCOTT MAUCIONE, BYLINE: It looked like 2020 when you stepped outside in Maryland this week. People were wearing masks, and the streets were a little less busy than usual. The smoke obscured the skyline and concerned people with health issues.

PHOENIX BARBER: It's been really crazy. I mean, I had to really bust out my inhaler. I have it on me right now.

MAUCIONE: Phoenix Barber is a student at the Baltimore School for the Arts.

BARBER: It felt like I was - I swallowed a porcupine at one point. It was so, like, prickly, and it made my throat, like, kind of, like, close in, almost.

MAUCIONE: Yeah.

BARBER: So I had, like, a lot of coughing and just uncomfort.

MAUCIONE: Carley Pysher was out walking her dog in the smog but wearing a mask to protect her lungs. Pysher's been watching the air quality levels. This week the state government issued code red on that quality, meaning it's unhealthy for everyone.

CARLEY PYSHER: I'm not super-educated on what that means, but it sounds kind of serious. So I, yeah, just wanted to protect myself.

MAUCIONE: Particles in the air reached 27 times the World Health Organization's health guidelines. Not everyone was concerned about the air quality, though. Steve Drake's a delivery driver and is outside most of the day, making those deliveries.

STEVE DRAKE: Today is just a little bit heavy. You can smell the smoke, but as long as it's not heavy and we can still see buildings, I don't think it'll bother us.

MAUCIONE: By today the air quality improved to some degree. Baltimore is now in code yellow, which means people who are unusually sensitive or have health issues should take precautions. Kevin Estep is one of those people. Estep coaches the Baltimore Bills, a semi-pro football team. His team is playing in the championship this week, but he had to cancel practice because he had a double lung transplant in 2019. Estep says doctors are likely to hospitalize him even for a small cold due to that transplant.

KEVIN ESTEP: I knew that today wasn't a good one for me, so that's why I called my doctor and see what's the best thing for me to do. And he basically shut me down totally.

MAUCIONE: The city's already taken precautions against the smog. Free masks are being handed out at homeless shelters. Baltimore schools canceled outdoor recess and asked staff to keep windows closed. The city's discouraging people from holding events and exercising outdoors. Even though the air quality is improving, wildfires are still blazing in Canada, meaning it's possible smoke could choke the region again. For NPR News, I'm Scott Maucione in Baltimore.

(SOUNDBITE OF LIL WAYNE SONG, "SHOOTER (FEATURING ROBIN THICKE)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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