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Lung expert on Chicago’s unhealthy air quality

‘Like smoking half a pack of cigarettes a day’

CHICAGO --- Dr. Ravi Kalhan, Northwestern Medicine deputy division chief of pulmonary and critical care medicine, is available to comment on the short- and long-term health effects of the “unhealthy” air quality in Chicago, which is currently ranked as the worst in the world.

Kalhan, a professor of medicine in pulmonary and critical care medicine at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, is leading a $25 million national study on millennial lung health. 

For an interview with Dr. Kalhan, contact Kristin Samuelson at

Comments from Kalhan on the short-term health effects of wildfire smoke:

“The people who are the most vulnerable are children and teens, older people, people with chronic lung diseases and people with heart conditions. When they are exposed to and inhale wildfire smoke, which is mostly made up of fine particles (PM2.5), those particles are tiny enough to get deep into the lungs and trigger an inflammatory response in the body, which can worsen chronic health conditions. People with asthma and chronic pulmonary obstructive disease (COPD) and heart disease should certainly stay inside.  

“If people have air purifiers, turn them on. Keep the windows closed. If they have central air conditioning, they should run the fan and if possible, upgrade the filter to MERV13, which is efficient at capturing fine particles. Anyone who can tolerate them should consider wearing an N95 mask if they have to go outdoors to protect themselves from inhaling these particles.”

Comments on long-term health effects: 

“The EPA index of 20 is equivalent to smoking one cigarette a day. Today, the air quality index in Chicago has been approaching 200. That’s like smoking a half-a-pack of cigarettes a day. It’s not news that smoking is bad for you, and this similar fine particulate matter has all the effects of inhaling noxious dusts and chemicals. If people are consistently exposed to these things, it can cause long-term risks for heart and lung diseases. Luckily, these high-intensity exposures have usually only lasted a few days, but with climate change and increasing exposure to wildfire smoke on a sustained basis, it does create long-term risk for the public health.”