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NYC Breathing Hazardous Smoky Air from Canadian Fires

"When that smoke does mix down back closer to the surface, like we’re seeing today, the pollutants and particulate matter in the smoke coming down close to the surface will degrade the air quality."

The Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor is barely visible as smoke from wildfires in Quebec spreads across the region on Tuesday, June 6, 2023. (Gardiner Anderson/New York Daily News/TNS)
Gardiner Anderson/TNS
(TNS) - Canadian wildfires have created dangerous air quality conditions in New York City as an orange sun and smoggy cloud layer has descended on the Big Apple.

The New York Department of Environmental Conservation issued an air quality health advisory for New York, Bronx, Kings, Queens and Richmond counties as well as surrounding suburbs that extends through midnight Wednesday. The state’s Department of Health recommends “individuals consider limiting strenuous outdoor physical activity to reduce the risk of adverse health effects.”

Fires in Quebec and Nova Scotia are to blame for the dangerous air. The National Weather Service and others call for widespread haze and patchy smoke over New York City with a temporary reprieve from the worst early Wednesday followed by deteriorating conditions later in the day. Air quality could be affected through the week.

With conditions expected to again worsen, Mayor Eric Adams announced that all outside activities at NYC public schools would be canceled Wednesday. Conditions in the city had deteriorated to the point where New York was ranked the city with the second worst air quality in the world, after Delhi, India, according to IQAir.

The hazy yellow-orange skies happen when smoke from the wildfires drifts with the jet stream, explained meteorologist John Homenuk of New York Metro Weather. The quality of the air people are breathing deteriorates as the smoke travels close to the ground.

“When that smoke does mix down back closer to the surface, like we’re seeing today, the pollutants and particulate matter in the smoke coming down close to the surface will degrade the air quality,” Homenuk said. “It’s unhealthy to breathe it in. And it can also reduce visibility significantly.”

With the wildfires relatively close in Quebec, Canada and the jet stream pointing toward NYC, Homenuk said this could last for days to come, with a higher risk on Wednesday afternoon.

“Right now, the models are suggesting another burst of of near surface smoke during the afternoon hours on Wednesday, and then some elevated smoke for the rest of the week and even into parts of the weekend,” he said.

Barbara Mann, a pulmonologist at Mount Sinai-National Jewish Respiratory Institute, said the haze that’s crept over the city may cause some chest tightness, eye watering or shortness of breath while the air conditions persist. Long-term smog leaves New Yorkers at an increased risk of heart attacks and respiratory conditions like asthma.

It’s best to limit exercise, Mann said — but if you must get your run or pickleball match in, it’s better to do so early in the morning or later in the evening when the sun isn’t as strong. And for children and those with preexisting conditions like asthma, she advises against exercise at all.

Young people and those with respiratory problems will be hit particularly hard, but Jaron Burke, the environmental health manager at WE ACT for Environmental Justice highlighted that it also could deal a blow to low-income and minority neighborhoods.

While Tuesday’s air quality impacted the city pretty evenly, pollution and air quality are worse in low-income and minority neighborhoods like Harlem and the South Bronx. That means that preexisting conditions like asthma are also worse, leaving them at higher risk.

“Those folks, even though they’re experiencing the same elevated levels of air pollution as everyone else in the city, they’re more likely to be impacted and end up in the hospital or in the emergency department, than other folks in the city,” Burke said.

When Julie DeLaurier stepped outside of her Park Slope apartment on Tuesday morning, she got a whiff of something burning.

“It smelled like someone had a BBQ or something,” she said. “... It’s hazy. You can see it. You can smell it.”

The smog is highly concerning for DeLaurier, 66, who said she’s seen the impacts of climate change get worse and worse over recent years.

“The government is not taking actions to reverse this manmade disaster,” she said. “It’s terrifying. We’re sitting here watching the world burn. … It’s insanity. It’s absolute insanity.”

Firefighter and military personnel throughout Canada traveled to provide assistance to the blaze, but they were unable to contain the 150 fires tearing through the province. French President Emmanuel Macron committed 100 firefighters to assist the Québecois, with whom France shares cultural and historic ties.

More than 8 million acres of Canadian land has burned so far this year. Quebec has seen at least a half-million acres consumed by wildfires already.

“New York State experts are monitoring our air quality every day to ensure New Yorkers have the latest information about current air quality in their communities and what they can do to protect themselves,” Gov. Hochul said in a statement.

The New York City Health Department is also monitoring the situation.

The National Weather Service issued “red flag warnings” for New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Washington and Alaska, where dry and unstable conditions raise the possibility for wildfires. Outdoor burning is discouraged until those warnings pass, which is expected to come after 8 p.m. local time.

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