From around noon on June 6, New York City has been shrouded in a smoky, orangish brown haze. Hundreds of forest fires have been raging for weeks along the Canadian border, causing massive clouds of smoke to travel across the East coast of the U.S.. At its peak, the Air Quality Index in New York City had neared 300. An AQI higher than 100 is considered unhealthy, and higher than 300 is hazardous
An air quality health advisory has been issued by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation until 11.59 p.m. on Friday, June 9.
Zachary Iscol, New York City’s Emergency Management Commissioner, offered an insight into the unpredictable nature of this air pollution incident during a press conference this morning. “Smoke is something that is notoriously difficult to forecast. Unlike weather, there are a lot more variables that go into the creation of smoke. For one, the amount of fire being created on the ground, the ability of firefighters to actually put out those fires. What is actually burning. In addition to that you have all the complexities of the forecasting of the weather systems that could then drive that smoke into this area” said Iscol.
“This is not a day to train for a marathon or do an outside event with children,” said Mayor Eric Adams at the same press conference, “Stay inside with your doors and windows closed and air purifiers on, if you have them.”
Both Commissioner Iscol and Mayor Adams were clear this could be a multiple day event, interspersed by some hours of respite. Iscol added, “It’s difficult to forecast. It is very, very important for all New Yorkers to sign up for Notify NYC. You can sign up by calling 311 or by going to nyc.gov/notifynyc, following our social media channels to stay tuned to what is going on with the air quality.”
The city’s Commissioner for the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, Dr. Ashwin Vasan, provided a medical context on the current situation, spelling out the most vulnerable groups. “This air quality event gave us the worst air quality we’ve experienced in NYC since the 1960s,” said Dr. Vasan, “The fine particulate matter in the air can get into people’s lungs, cause inflammation and worsen conditions like asthma, chronic lung disease or underlying heart conditions. Older adults may be particularly vulnerable due to declines in lung function and weaker immune systems. Children may also be vulnerable to lower air quality because their lungs are still developing.”
All department heads and the mayor drew attention to the larger issue of climate change that is a leading cause of forest fires. “While we have experienced this kind of situation before, it is not the last. Climate change has accelerated these conditions and we must continue to draw down emissions, improve air quality and build resiliency,” said Mayor Adams.
Gov. Kathy Hochul announced today that 1 million N95 masks will be made available to New Yorkers across the state on Thursday. They will be given out at train stations, parks and other public places, as well as handed out to local governments.
Epicenter-NYC contributor, Hari Adivarekar spoke to Dr. Barrak Alahmad, MD and PhD, who is a research fellow at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
Epicenter-NYC: What precautions do New Yorkers need to take during this air pollution alert?
Barrak Alahmad: These levels are known to be hazardous. The public should take all precautions to prioritize their health by staying indoors as much as possible, keeping windows closed, ensuring their homes are well-sealed, and limiting outdoor activities to only those that are essential. Personal protective equipment like using N-95 masks outdoors and air filtration systems inside buildings can help reduce personal exposure.
Epicenter-NYC: What precautions can workers who have to be outdoors (i.e. construction sites, delivery people) take?
Barrak Alahmad: Fortunately, we forecast that this pollution episode is now peaking and should subside soon. However, during this period, I would like to see employers prioritize the health of their employees by minimizing their outdoor work hours, especially in industries like construction. We’ve seen similar measures implemented during the Covid-19 pandemic, and it’s a precedent worth following in this situation.
Epicenter-NYC: At what AQI is it safe for New Yorkers to get back to their normal lives?
Barrak Alahmad: While air pollution can pose health risks even at lower concentrations, the AQI provides a useful guide. An AQI in the ‘green’ category (0-50) generally indicates good air quality.
Epicenter-NYC: Do you see this as a recurring issue going forward, like what we’ve seen on the West coast? How can citizens be better prepared for situations like this?
Barrak Alahmad: With heat, dryness, and altered rainfall, climate change creates very favorable conditions for wildfires. This is likely going to be exacerbated in the future. While adaptation and preparedness are important, they alone won’t fix the problem. It’s crucial for everyone to actively participate in mitigating climate change. It is time to throw the kitchen sink at climate change.
RESOURCES TO STAY UP TO DATE ON CURRENT AQI CONDITIONS
- Call 311
- Go to nyc.gov/notifynyc
- Go to https://on.nyc.gov/airquality
- Call the New York State Air Quality Hotline: (800) 535-1345
- Visit the social media accounts of the NYC Mayor, the Departments of Emergency Management, Environmental Conservation and Health and Mental Hygiene.
- Follow local news networks