New Yorkers were gripped by the worst urban air quality in the world Thursday, and Americans could face days or even weeks of smoky siege from the drifting haze of unrelenting Canadian wildfires.
Hundreds of community parks, ballfields and other outdoor spaces from Canada to North Carolina sat empty as air quality readings in many areas ranged from unhealthy to hazardous. The low-pressure system adrift over Maine and Nova Scotia that has helped funnel the ashen air will probably be «hanging around at least for the next few days,” National Weather Service meteorologist Bryan Ramsey said.
Conditions are likely to remain unhealthy until the wind direction changes or the fires are doused, he said.
“Since the fires are raging, they’re really large, they’re probably going to continue for weeks,» Ramsey said. «It’s really just going be all about the wind shift.”
The good news, AccuWeather reports, is that parts of the Northeast could see modest air quality improvements through the day Thursday, although it will take until Friday or Friday night for significant improvement in some locations. The bad news is some of the most dense smoke may shift west toward Pittsburgh, Cleveland and Detroit, AccuWeather said.
◾ The air quality monitoring website iqair.com had New York City at the top of its global list Thursday. Detroit rose as high as third before falling back into the 20s.
◾ Friday will be a remote-instruction day for the more than 1 million students attending New York City public schools.
◾ Authorities warned residents across much of the Northeast to stay inside and limit or avoid outdoor activities Thursday, extending “Code Red” alerts in some places for a third-straight day
◾ Low visibility from the haze forced temporary «ground stops» on all flights out of New York’s LaGuardia Airport and Philadelphia International Airport early Thursday.
Biden’s advice to Americans about wildfire smoke: ‘Stay safe,’ seek local guidance
President Joe Biden encouraged Americans suffering through air pollution from the Canadian wildfires to seek local government guidance.
«It’s very important that affected communities listen to the guidance of their state and local officials from this point forward,» Biden told reporters at the start of his joint press conference with British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak at the White House. «Check on one another.»
The president said that Americans can keep up to date on the air quality across the country at the website AirNow.gov.
In a more detailed written statement released Thursday, Biden said he spoke with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau about adding more U.S. firefighters in Canada to join the 600 American firefighters which include «hot shots and jumper crews» already on the ground there.
«I have directed the National Interagency Fire Center to respond promptly to Canadian requests for additional firefighters and fire suppression assets such as air tankers,» Biden said. «I’ve asked Secretary of Transportation Buttigieg to keep me informed about his progress in ensuring that we proactively manage the air traffic implications of the deteriorated air quality based on lessons learned from prior incidents.»
Is there a best time of day if you must go out in the smoky air? Not really, experts say
The best thing to do when air quality outside is unhealthy due to wildfire smoke is stay indoors, but what if you have to go out? Is there a best time of day to do it?
Experts say, not really, and the answer can vary depending on a specific location, weather, topography and other factors.
In areas of the East Coast that are impacted by the Canadian wildfires, the source of the smoke pollution is constant, so the air quality levels aren’t changing all that much with the time of day, Prof. Valentina Aquila, an atmospheric scientist at American University said.
If you have to go out, “rather than suggesting an hour, I would actually suggest to wear a mask,” Aquila said. “For wildfires, although smoke levels may fluctuate throughout the day, there is no safe time, so outside activity, especially strenuous activity, should be minimized,” Michelle Bell, a professor with the Yale School of the Environment, said.
So, don’t try to go for a jog at any time of day when air quality is unhealthy, and if you have to go out for any other reason, keep it short and put on a high-filtration mask, experts say.
Public schools go remote
School districts in parts of the East Coast announced plans to conduct classes on Friday remotely due to no significant improvements in air quality.
New York City Public Schools — the nation’s largest public school system — decided to pivot to remote instruction mostly affected high schoolers because other grades already were scheduled to have the day off.
«Out of an abundance of caution for the health of students» and since Philadelphia’s air quality designation was in Code Red on Thursday, the School District of Philadelphia said all schools will shift to remote learning on Friday.
With graduation ceremonies planned for Friday, the district said all indoor ceremonies will proceed but outdoor ceremonies will be moved to alternative locations.
Air quality concerns cause event cancellations, delays
As poor air quality and smoke blanketed the eastern United States, a host of events were canceled or postponed on Thursday and into Friday.
Several public performances and outdoor activities scheduled on Thursday and Friday were canceled in New York City. In Syracuse, New York, a Chris Stapleton concert was postponed and fireworks were canceled at Niagara Falls, New York.
In Washington, D.C., the White House Pride Month celebration on the South Lawn was delayed until Saturday, citing air quality concerns. Local officials also closed public parks.
Belmont Stakes up in the air due to NY’s poor air quality
The third leg of horse racing’s Triple Crown is in doubt as New York’s air quality remains dangerous.
Saturday’s Belmont Stakes could be canceled as racing, training and workouts at Belmont Park were canceled Thursday due to New York Gov. Kathy Hochul issuing a state order due to poor air quality.
As a result, the start of the three-day Belmont Stakes Racing Festival was postponed.
The New York Gaming Commission said in a statement that the racetrack is shut down until further notice as it «continues to monitor air quality and rely on guidance from veterinary expertise to ensure any decision to resume racing is based solely in the best interest of the horse population.»
Hochul said Saturday’s race with a $1.5 million prize for the winner could be called off if the air quality index exceeds 200 on its scale. However, if the air quality is between 150 to 200, only horses that pass an additional pre-race vet examination will be allowed to compete.
«As New Yorkers continue to experience unhealthy air quality as a result of Canadian wildfires, we must all work to ensure that animals – including these peak-performance equine athletes — are protected,» the governor said on her official website. «The measures being implemented at tracks across New York State are effective steps to keep all those who participate in the sport safe now and into the future.»
It’s not clear when or if the order will end. The state’s air quality remained unhealthy on Thursday, according to Accuweather.com.
«Safety is paramount as we navigate this unprecedented situation,” David O’Rourke, the New York Racing Association’s president and chief executive, said Thursday. «NYRA will actively monitor all available data and weather information as we work toward the resumption of training and racing both here at Belmont Park and at Saratoga Race Course.
«Based on current forecast models and consultation with our external weather services,» O’Rouke continued. «We remain optimistic that we will see an improvement in air quality on Friday.»
Pennsylvania, New York City see uptick in patient visits
Hospitals and medical centers in the Philadelphia metropolitan area reported an increase in patients seeking care for respiratory issues.
«Patients have been complaining about throat and eye irritation. Some patients’ allergies are being exacerbated, and patients with respiratory issues have been experiencing a little bit more difficulty breathing and they have had to use their inhalers more,» Dr. Heather Osher, a Patient First medical director, told the Bucks County Courier Times.
In New York City, the health department reported that emergency rooms were seeing a «higher than usual» number of asthma-related visits and estimated that the number of patients were in the «low hundreds.»
City health officials said the slight increase in emergency room visits began Wednesday, according to NBC New York.
-Peg Quann, Bucks County Courier Times; Thao Nguyen, USA TODAY
Pets can’t wear masks outdoors to protect them from the smoke, but many need to go outdoors. It’s important to keep monitoring their health and try to keep them inside as much as possible, said Dr. Aly Cohen with the Cornell University Riney Canine Health Center. Some breeds of dogs, called short-muzzle breeds, already have higher rates of respiratory issues, including bulldogs, Boston terriers and Cavalier King Charles spaniels. Pet birds and horses also are at higher risk, Cohen said.
«Hopefully, this won’t be something that lasts forever, but just try and be as mindful as you can and entertain them the best you can indoors,» Cohen said.
− Jeanine Santucci
Health experts are urging Americans in areas with air quality warnings to stay indoors and run an air filtration system that will reduce exposure. Wildfire smoke is a mix of gases and fine particles that can cause harm in multiple ways, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Older adults, pregnant women, young children and people with chronic heart and respiratory conditions are more likely to get sick if they breathe in wildfire smoke. But the CDC says even healthy adults can also experience coughing, breathing issues, stinging eyes, scratchy throat, runny nose, irritated sinuses, chest pain, headaches, asthma attacks, fatigue and fast heartbeat. And the American Lung Association says wildfire smoke can be “extremely harmful” to lung health.
Wildfire smoke can also harm the skin and even prompt «psychiatric conditions,» said Dr. Raj Fadadu, a physician and researcher at the University of California, San Francisco, who studies extensively on the health impacts of wildfire smoke given that state’s annual battles with wildfires.
Fadadu urges those in other parts of the country experiencing wildfire smoke to be more “self-aware” about potential smoke-induced health effects on their bodies going forward.
«This increase in air pollution is new to many (people),» he said. «Their bodies are confused about what’s happening. Please pay attention to even the slightest things, including a headache, eye redness, and even some itchiness or a rash. … Don’t ignore any symptoms.»
− Adrianna Rodriguez and Terry Collins, USA TODAY
Millions of horrified Americans have watched clear blue skies morph into thick orange fogs in recent days. While familiar to many Americans living in the western part of the country, the eerie orange hues have frightened and confounded some in regions of the nation less accustomed to the effects of wildfires.
Smoke particles from the fires allow sunlight’s longer wavelength colors, like red and orange, to pass through while blocking the shorter wavelengths, like yellow, blue and green.
«That’s similar to during sunrise and sunset times when the sun is near the horizon and sunlight has to travel through more of Earth’s atmosphere to get to you,» NASA explains.
− Grace Hauck
The U.S. Air Quality Index, or AQI, is the Environmental Protection Agency’s tool for communicating daily air quality. It uses color-coded categories to describe air quality, which groups of people may be affected and steps that can be taken to reduce exposure to air pollution. It’s also used as the basis for air quality forecasts and current air quality reporting. Metro areas with a population of more than 350,000 are required to report the daily AQI, and you can find the daily AQI on AirNow and on state and local agency websites.
State and local air quality experts provide forecasts across the nation. In most areas, AQI forecasts focus on the next day. For ozone, an AQI forecast focuses on the period when average eight-hour ozone concentrations are expected to be the highest. For particulate matter, the forecast predicts the average 24-hour concentration for the next day.
What do the AQI numbers mean?
The AQI is measured on a scale of 0 to 500. The higher the AQI values, the greater the level of air pollution and health concern there is, according to AirNow.gov. Conversely, the lower the AQI values, the air quality is more satisfactory and the health risks are lower. A measure of 50 and under represents good air quality. Anything above 300 is considered «hazardous» and will usually prompt a health warning.
The EPA determines the AQI values based on five major air pollutants which are regulated by the Clean Air Act: ground-level ozone, particle pollution (also known as particulate matter, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide.
− Clare Mulroy
More than 400 blazes burning across Canada have left 20,000 people displaced. The U.S. has sent more than 600 firefighters and equipment to Canada. A primary culprit for fouling U.S. air is the 150 fires burning in south-central Quebec, a majority of which were not contained. A stalled high-pressure system over the northern Plains and the stationary low-pressure system over eastern Canada has produced a «steering» wind from north to south, sending thick plumes of smoke into the Northeast, Middle Atlantic and Ohio Valley, AccuWeather Senior Meteorologist Brett Anderson said.
The fires are mostly in remote, wooded areas − and since most of Canada’s firefighting focus is on saving homes, the blazes are likely to continue burning into the summer, Anderson said.
«So get used to these episodes of smoke and haze through the summer,» he said.
Unusually hot, dry weather that wouldn’t stop gave rise to the wildfires. Most were ignited by lightning, experts say. A warming planet will produce hotter and longer heat waves, making for bigger, smokier fires, according to Joel Thornton, professor and chair of the atmospheric sciences department at the University of Washington.
“The month of May was just off the charts, record warm in much of Canada,” said Eric James, a modeling expert with the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Science at the University of Colorado. “I don’t remember (Canadian) fires of this scale in the last 10 years.»
An air quality alert remains in effect for New Jersey through Thursday night. It is forecast to drop on Thursday from a red alert, which means it’s unhealthy for the general population, to an orange alert – unhealthy for sensitive groups.
«We’re looking at this staying with us to some degree Thursday and into Friday,» said National Weather Service meteorologist John Cristantello.
–Scott Fallon, northjersey.com
One million N95 filtering masks will be made available across New York state Thursday, Gov. Kathy Hochul said. More than 400,000 will be distributed to New Yorkers at subway and bus stations and state parks, with another 600,000 made available for local governments to pick up and distribute.
«Our message is simple: Stay inside & stay alert,» Hochul tweeted Thursday. «While conditions are improving, air quality advisories remain in place. This is not over yet.
«Even if the air clears tomorrow, we’ll be prepared for the winds to shift & smoke to return,» the governor added.
Contributing: Associated Press.