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NYC air quality hits catastrophic low as Canadian wildfires rage

As smoke from the nearly 400 wildfires currently blazing in Canada keeps descending south across the United States’ border, New York City has recently been listed by the Swiss tech company IQAir as having the world’s worst air quality, surpassing typical forerunners such as Dubai, Lahore, Delhi, or Baghdad. According to the experts, on Wednesday, June 7, the air quality in NYC was more than 56 times over the level deemed safe by the World Health Organization (WHO).

IQAir uses fine particulate matter (PM2.5) measurements – hazardous particles that are 2.5 microns or less in diameter – to assess in real time the pollution levels all over the globe. Since the health impact of a particle concentration of 22μg/m3 per 24 hours is considered equivalent to smoking about one cigarette, the current situation in New York is highly alarming: breathing the air in the city during a day is now as damaging as smoking 22 cigarettes.

Residents urged to stay indoors

Considering this worrisome situation, with the air quality index (AQI) spiking to 353 out of 500 on Wednesday (compared to 15 on June 3, for instance), mayor Eric Adams and governor Kathy Hochul urged New York residents to stay inside, and announced that the state is currently producing a million N95 masks to distribute them to the most vulnerable demographics. 

“This may be the first time we’ve experienced something like this on this magnitude,” Adams said in a press conference on Wednesday. “Let me be clear, it’s not the last.” 

“You don’t need to go out and take a walk. You don’t need to push the baby in the stroller,” Ms. Hochul added.

Similarly, Dr. Mark Shapiro, a medical director in Santa Rosa, California, tweeted recommendations on staying safe, suggesting that residents should wear an N95 mask, minimize as much as possible time outside, frequently wash their hands and face, and keep headlights on when driving to avoid accidents in the increasing smog caused by the Canadian wildfires.

When will air quality improve?

With no end in sight for the Quebec wildfires, authorities are uncertain how the situation in New York and other US cities will evolve, and expect very high levels of pollution at least until the end of this week. 

“The weather pattern may finally break down this weekend, and by Sunday the winds may shift, providing relief from the smoke,” said Judson Jones, a meteorologist and reporter at the New York Times. “Relief could come even earlier if progress is made on putting out the wildfires.” 

However, since the wildfire season has just started, people in New York and elsewhere could experience more similar events over this summer. In the long-term, urgent efforts to curb greenhouse gas emissions and mitigate climate change could decrease the frequency and intensity of wildfire, and improve air quality.

According to Bill McKibben, a writer and environmental activist from Vermont, this unprecedented situation may have given millions of North Americans a sense of what people in other areas of the world have already repeatedly experienced. “Today is our chance to understand what it really feels like every day on a fossil-fueled planet, for the billions of people unlucky enough to really bear the brunt. My eyes are stinging a bit from the smoke, but I’ve never seen more clearly.”

More about poor air quality

Air pollution can have detrimental effects on both human health and the environment. Here are a few points to consider regarding poor air quality:

Health impacts

Exposure to polluted air can cause or worsen respiratory conditions such as asthma, bronchitis, and allergies. It can also lead to cardiovascular problems and other serious health issues.

Causes of air pollution

Air pollution can result from various sources, including industrial emissions, vehicle exhaust, power plants, agricultural practices, and natural factors such as dust storms or wildfires. Indoor air pollution can also be a concern, arising from factors like household chemicals, mold, or inadequate ventilation.

Air Quality Index (AQI)

The Air Quality Index is a numerical scale used to measure and communicate the level of air pollution in a specific area. It typically ranges from 0 to 500, with higher values indicating worse air quality. AQI values are categorized into different levels, such as “good,” “moderate,” “unhealthy,” “very unhealthy,” and “hazardous.”

Protecting yourself

When air quality is poor, there are several measures you can take to reduce your exposure. These include staying indoors, closing windows and doors, using air purifiers with HEPA filters, wearing masks that filter out fine particles (like N95 masks), and avoiding physical exertion outdoors during high pollution periods.

Environmental impact

Air pollution also has adverse effects on the environment. It contributes to climate change, damages ecosystems, harms wildlife, and can lead to the deterioration of buildings and monuments.

By Andrei Ionescu, Staff Writer

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