Smoke from wildfires in Canada has drifted down into the U.S. on Wednesday, leading to extremely poor air quality across much of the eastern U.S., with alerts in effect all the way from New England to the Southeast. In all, more than 100 million Americans were affected by air quality alerts, the Environmental Protection Agency said.
In fact, New York City’s air quality was the worst among the world’s major cities for a time Tuesday morning, according to IQAir, an air quality monitoring website. As of Wednesday afternoon, IQAir said New York City’s pollution was fourth-worst in the world, behind New Delhi, India; Dhaka, Bangladesh; and Toronto.
New York City Mayor Eric Adams said that the city’s air quality index on Wednesday climbed up to 484 out of a scale of 500, more than double the level that was reached Tuesday night. He said the city’s air quality health advisory has been extended through Thursday night.
Due to the unhealthy air, Major League Baseball postponed Wednesday night’s games in New York and Philadelphia. It’s the first such postponement since September 2020, when two games between the Seattle Mariners and the San Francisco Giants were moved from Seattle to San Francisco due to wildfire-related smoke.
Also, New York Gov. Kathy Hochul tweeted Wednesday that the state is making 1 million N95 masks available to the public due to the ongoing poor air quality from the Canadian wildfires.
“We are living in the era of extreme weather. Last summer, New York experienced extremely dry conditions and we had wildfires pop up across the state,” Hochul said. “While continuing our fight against climate change, we need to recognize that this is a new reality we have to be prepared for.”
The poor air quality on Wednesday even made it as far south as Atlanta, where the National Weather Service said: “particularly sensitive groups may be affected in north Georgia.”
Sara Adar, from the University of Michigan’s School of Public Health, said “as many people in the Midwest and East Coast are learning right now, wildfire smoke can travel very far distances and impact large populations. To best protect health, people should avoid spending too much time outdoors right now, especially young children, the elderly, pregnant women and those with heart or lung disease,” she said.
According to EPA spokesperson Shayla R. Powell, the EPA estimates that “more than 100 million people are affected by air quality alerts today, ranging from Code Orange (Unhealthy for Sensitive Groups) and above. This area includes much of the Northeast U.S. – extending to Philadelphia to Chicago to the west and Atlanta to the south.
“We expect that air quality in this area is predominantly impacted by the Canadian wildfires, although more localized pollution emissions and meteorology may also play a factor,” Powell said.
The Federal Aviation Administration had halted all inbound flights to New York’s LaGuardia airport early Wednesday afternoon due to the wildfire smoke, but lifted that restriction by late afternoon. However, delays remained at the airport.
Meanwhile, at Newark’s Liberty Airport, the airport reported that low visibility was leading to a ground stop for some arriving flights.
The FAA also said the extreme wildfire smoke haze lingering over the Northeast U.S. due to Canadian wildfires could delay flights through Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Washington, D.C., CNN reported.
Northeastern U.S. residents urged to limit outdoor activities
Among parts of the northeast, the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control issued a Code Red Air Quality Alert Wednesday that will be in effect across the state through Thursday.
And neighboring states, including Pennsylvania and New Jersey, will be under a Code Orange, according to WPVI-TV. The alerts could change as the smoke passes through the northeast region.
But for now, experts including Philadelphia Health Commissioner Dr. Cheryl Bettigole told the station Wednesday that residents should try limiting their outdoor exposure.
“These are very very fine particulates that can be breathed very deep into the lungs, and they can do damage to the lung,” Bettigole said. “It can sometimes get into your bloodstream.”
A similar warning was heeded in the Washington, D.C.-Maryland-Virginia area, said Hannah Winnant, deputy director of the Arlington County Emergency Management, to WJLA-TV on Wednesday.
Winnant advised residents to stay home if possible.
“People who are more at risk for poor air quality, for example, people with asthma, the elderly or very young children should absolutely consider staying inside,” Winnant told the station. “But we advise this for everyone.”
Wildfire, smoke map for US, Canada
Hazy skies blanketed New York on Wednesday afternoon as smoke permeated the city’s air. For some New Yorkers, the poor air quality meant the return of masks and a flashback to the pandemic era.
From Brooklyn’s Williamsburg neighborhood, where the Manhattan skyline is usually easily seen, the towers were barely visible through the brown haze. It seemed more like a foggy morning than an early June afternoon.
Mikael Haxby, 43, was walking his dog toward the waterfront, a medical facemask strapped tight over his mouth and nose. He said he had a burning feeling in his throat. “I’m somewhat used to wearing the mask,” he said. “It’s more just like the air quality is bad.” He said his child would have recess inside Wednesday, as all city schools had announced.
Plenty of others went maskless, however, and some were donning the “chin strap” former Gov. Andrew Cuomo once chided during his daily pandemic press conferences.
Amid the haze, public gathering spots sat mostly empty. A popular outdoor brunch restaurant, usually bustling even on a weekday, looked deserted. McCarren Park, home to the neighborhood track, had only a few joggers.
“I was actually coughing,” Deborah Gross, 29, said, from behind her white N-95 mask. She was late to meet a friend because she had to stop into a drug store to buy a mask, a move that reminded her of riding out the pandemic in the city. “I saw people wearing masks on the street,” she said, “and I was like, ‘Whoa, throwback.’”
— Anna Kaufman
The weather service said the wind trajectory that allowed smoke and hazy conditions to be seen in the New York City area could continue for the next few days.
The smoky air will then work its way west over the next couple of days, AccuWeather said.
“On Thursday and Friday, the worst smoke and related air quality is expected to shift west across the Great Lakes and parts of Ohio Valley and interior Northeast including the cities of Buffalo, Pittsburgh, and Detroit,” said AccuWeather director of forecasting operations Dan DePodwin.
Air quality alerts are indicators the air is unsafe to breathe for certain people. Alerts are triggered by a number of factors, including the detection of fine-particle pollution — known as “PM 2.5” — which can irritate the lungs.
Pollution is detected by a system of monitors on the ground “constantly taking measurements of the amount of chemicals and particles in the air,” said Susan Anenberg, professor and department chair of environmental and occupational health at George Washington University.
As much of the Northeast is blanketed in a haze of smoke drifting down from hundreds of Canadian wildfires, people are being told to stay inside as much as possible on Wednesday.
That’s not so easy for people experiencing homelessness, advocates say.
“For our neighbors living outside, it’s impossible for them to escape it,” said Jesse Rabinowitz, senior manager for policy and advocacy at the nonprofit Miriam’s Kitchen in the nation’s capital.
Some of the cities most impacted by unhealthy air quality from the fires also see some of the highest rates of homelessness in the country.
Parts of New York City and Washington, D.C., hovered between a red and purple air quality designation during the day, according to airnow.gov. That means the air is unhealthy for the general population, and people are recommended to reduce physical activity and consider going indoors. School children were kept inside for recess. Anyone with additional health risks should move all their activities indoors, officials said.
“There are hundreds of our neighbors who don’t have a choice but to stay outside, which must compel us to end homelessness and ensure that everyone has the housing that they need to thrive,” Rabinowitz said.
— Jeanine Santucci
Folks across the eastern U.S. and in Canada were coping as best as possible with the smoke-filled air. “I can taste the air,” Dr. Ken Strumpf said in a Facebook post from Syracuse, New York, which was enveloped in an amber pall. The smoke, he later said by phone, even made him a bit dizzy.
In Baltimore, where officials warned residents to stay indoors when possible, Debbie Funk sported a blue surgical mask as she and husband, Jack Hughes, took their daily walk. “I walked outside this morning and it was like a waft of smoke,” said Funk, who said the couple had considered skipping the walk but wanted some exercise.
In Montreal, Quebec, Canada, Zachary Kamel said, “the smoke was insane yesterday. I had to close my window because the fresh air just smelled like campfire.”
US air quality index map
Contributing: Adrianna Rodriguez, USA TODAY; The Associated Press