New York City air quality reaches hazardous levels due to Canadian wildfires; risk high Wednesday afternoon

Tribune Content Agency

NEW YORK — Canadian wildfires have created dangerous air quality conditions in New York City, with a smoggy layer of hazardous smoke enveloping the Big Apple. With conditions deteriorating quickly Wednesday afternoon, New York jumped to the number one spot on a list of cities with the worst air pollution in the world.

The New York Department of Environmental Conservation has 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, perhaps even into the weekend.

With conditions worsening, Mayor Adams announced that all outside activities at NYC public schools would be canceled Wednesday. Conditions in the city had worsened to the point where New York was ranked the city with the worst air quality in the world, according to IQAir as of 2:45 p.m. Wednesday.

“All New Yorkers should limit outdoor activity to the greatest extent possible,” Adams said during a briefing Wednesday. “This is not a day to train for a marathon or to do an outside event with your children. Stay inside, close windows, and doors, and use air purifiers if you have them.”

Organizers across the city called off concerts, protests and outdoor activities at schools because of hazardous conditions. A ground stop was ordered at LaGuardia Airport because of the heavy smoke. One health clinic reported a high proportion of patients complaining of respiratory issues.

Emergency Management Commissioner Zach Iscol said that the air quality advisory remains in effect through midnight Wednesday, but that he expects it’ll likely be extended beyond that, potentially into the weekend. The smoke was expected to be at its worst Wednesday afternoon and then start to improve Thursday and Friday, but conditions might not be back to normal until the weekend.

“We expect this to be a multiple-day event, so we expect that that advisory will remain in place for the next few days,” he said.

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 more strong smoke plumes to come Wednesday afternoon.

“We’re going to see the smoke mix back down to the surface, just like we did yesterday afternoon and evening,” he said. “It’ll be pretty similar — if not maybe slightly worse, actually — than yesterday,” Homenuk 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.

Mann suggested wearing a tight fitting mask for protection against the dangerous air particles.

Ramón Tallaj, a doctor who leads SOMOS Community Care, a nonprofit health network, said that in one of the SOMOS clinics, about 90% of patients Tuesday came in because of respiratory problems.

Dr. Ashwin Vasan, the commissioner of the Department of Health, said the city’s hospitals are not experiencing any surges in patients as a result of the air quality event. “Thus far we are not seeing an uptick in emergency room visits due to compromise or complications from this air quality event. That could change, and we are monitoring that closely,” he said.

The heavy smoke and apocalyptic colors caught the attention of New Yorkers across the city.

“I never experienced anything like this,” said Lex Gutierrez, 33, a painter who lives in Jackson Heights. “I know they experience this on the West Coast but not here.”

Despite the heavy smoke, Leah Wang, 55, took her two antsy young grandchildren to Gorman Playground in Queens on Wednesday afternoon. “I just wanted my grandsons to spend a little bit of time outside, not too long just so that they can move around,” Wang said.

Still, Wang, who lives in Jackson Heights, said the air was aggravating her allergies.

“Everything is just off, it concerns me because it’s making me cough more,” Wang said.

Brandon Cabrera, a teacher aide at P.S. 212, is relieved that he’s working indoors for most of the day and worried the air quality will force him to scrap his weekend plans.

“It might ruin my whole weekend… It’s like this, I’m just staying in,” Cabrera, 25, said.

Gov. Hochul gave an update on the situation on Wednesday afternoon, calling the situation “a crisis.” Parts of the state saw an 800% increase in dangerous air quality in the span of just a few hours on Wednesday, she added.

“The bottom line is this: If you can stay indoors, stay indoors,” Hochul said. “This is detrimental to people’s health.”

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.