New York air pollution hit hazardous ratings as wildfire smoke plagues East Coast

Tens of millions of Americans are under air quality alerts in 13 states

Alex Woodward
New York
Thursday 08 June 2023 11:23 BST
Canadian wildfires spread haze over New York City

Yellowing and ashen skies smothered New York City’s skyline on Wednesday as wildfire smoke drifting from Canada sparked unhealthy air conditions across the northeastern US.

Air quality above New York had improved slightly on 7 June but rapidly deteriorated in the afternoon, reaching an air quality index of more than 400 in some parts of the city – the worst level globally – and roughly 58 times the World Health Organization’s guidelines.

The federal government’s index for measuring air quality considers anything above 300 “hazardous”. By comparison, the index over the weekend was 20.

Thirteen states have issued air quality alerts, covering an area with roughly 100 million people.

Education departments in New York City and Washington DC canceled outdoor activities in public schools. New York Governor Kathy Hochul “strongly” urged school districts statewide to do the same, as the state’s air quality index is expected to remain “unhealthy to very unhealthy” through Wednesday night.

The city’s health commissioner Ashwin Vasan told reporters on Wednesday that the city’s air quality is at its worst since the 1960s, with conditions expected to last through several days. Weather patterns are expected to direct smoke from Canada’s fires into the northeastern US through the weekend, according to the National Weather Service.

Health officials have warned that hazardous air quality conditions can be acutely harmful for people with respiratory issues and other preexisting conditions. People are urged to stay indoors and wear a well-fitting mask, such as an N95 ror KN95 respirator, while outside. Indoor air purifiers also can help reduce the harmful effects of wildfire smoke.

“This is not the day to train for a marathon,” Mayor Eric Adams said during Wednesday’s press conference.

Federal authorities temporarily grounded flights at LaGuardia Airport on Wednesday “due to low visibility” from darkening skies, and Newark Liberty International Airport announced ground delays. More than 16,200 flights faced delays and 79 flights were canceled across the US by Wednesday afternoon, according to FlightAware.

Roughly 250 fires have continued to burn out of control in Canada, with parts of Quebec and Ontario under a smog warning. Smoke is expected to reach as far south as South Carolina.

Climate change is accelerating these conditions,” Mr Adams said during Wednesday’s briefing.

The global crisis is “going to force us to rethink the conditions we’re going to be facing,” he said. “This is a new universe we are in.”

In the US, the federal government’s most recent National Climate Assessment linked “human-caused climate change” with the rise in wildfires, which have accelerated with global heating caused by emissions from fossil fuels. As carbon released by fires is pumped into the atmosphere, global temperatures increase, further drying out land and vegetation, making it more susceptible to fire.

In New York, state lawmakers are considering legislation to prohibit certain new so-called “natural gas” hookups used to generate electricity, a measure hailed by climate advocates as an affordable transition away from fossil fuels in the state.

This story was published on 7 June and was updated with developments

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