This summer, amidst the Canadian wildfire-induced haze that earned Chicago the title of most polluted city in the world, I stepped into the cool of the Maze branch library. Noticing an appliance near the entrance bearing the name Medify Air, I asked the librarian whether the library’s air purifying system could handle PM 2.5, the lung-damaging particulate that was an important component of the unhealthy air outside.
The librarian immediately got on the phone with someone at the Main library and reported back that the filters had been installed to address COVID risks but, yes, they promised to be effective in removing particulate matter (another reason to like the Oak Park Library). A 2023 study of portable air cleaners concluded that they remove up to 57 percent of PM 2.5 in a classroom-sized space. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0048969722069133
Relieved to take a break from wearing an N-95 mask, I settled into one of the many empty chairs in the main reading room. I pulled open my laptop and looked at the latest data from the nearby air monitoring stations. On that day, the nearest stations were in Cicero and Schiller Park, but both of them were reporting PM 2.5 levels at code red, meaning “very unhealthy” air. This useful map can be found at www.iqair.com/air-quality-map and now includes at least one air monitoring station in Oak Park. A similar map sponsored by US EPA can be found at https://fire.airnow.gov.
Later in the day, when the air quality map showed some improvement, I stepped outside but was hit with the sharp contrast between the pleasant atmosphere within the library and the hot, acrid air outside. It occurred to me that most Oak Park residents were probably not aware of just how severe the PM 2.5 concentrations were that day and of the various public sites within the village that offered a healthier alternative. Kids’ lungs tend to be pretty vulnerable and this would be a good day to shift to indoor activities supported by portable air cleaners, but apparently some of the nearby day camps were continuing with outdoor games and sports.
It would be helpful if the different parts of the village government, including the park district and schools in addition to the libraries, took stock of what they are offering in terms of particulate removal. And then inform village residents of the location of high-quality filtration systems. Households can also get their own filters or go the DIY route with a Corsi-Rosenthal box (https://chemrxiv.org/engage/chemrxiv/article-details/632dd805e665bda75a1002f8).
Unfortunately, the conditions we experienced in early summer are likely to return in the future and with even higher concentrations of lung-damaging smoke. The average Canadian emits less fossil fuel-related greenhouse gases than the average American and in this particular instance, the climate impact is coming back to haunt us.
Susan Subak is an Oak Park resident.