‘Like it’s on fire’: Eastern US faces serious health risks from Canadian wildfires
By Rachel FrazinZack Budryk,2023-06-07
Wildfires in Canada are creating serious health hazards across the United States, turning the New York City skyline a tint of orange on Wednesday that made America’s largest city look like a location from a post-apocalyptic sci-fi film in widely shared photographs and broadcast images.
New York and Detroit were listed among cities having the worst air quality in the world by IQ Air, a Swiss air quality tech company, while Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. faced “code red” air quality.
The scenes led Varshini Prakash, executive director of the Sunrise Movement, to say New York looks “like it’s on fire.”
The city’s polluted air created a health risk “equivalent to breathing in smoke from cigarettes,” said a written statement from Prakash, who added it was “absurd” the government didn’t take action by declaring a climate emergency.
The effects of the fires are widespread across the country, affecting more than a dozen states. NBC News reported that parts of 18 states were under air quality alerts as of Wednesday.
Meanwhile, EPA spokesperson Shayla Powell told The Hill in an email that the agency estimates that more than 100 million people are being impacted by air quality alerts on Wednesday, including as far west as Chicago and as far South as Atlanta.
Powell said that in these locations, air quality is at least code orange — that is unhealthy for sensitive groups — if not worse. She noted, however, that the agency does not have information on the cause of the alerts, and that local pollution emissions or other factors may also be contributing.
“Yesterday New Yorkers saw and smelled something that had never impacted us on this scale before …we had dangerously high levels of wildfire smoke from thousands of miles away, from the gloom over Yankee Stadium to the smoky haze scouring our skyline,” Mayor Eric Adams (D) said in a press briefing. “We could see it, we could smell it and we felt it.”
It’s far from clear when people will get some relief, with much depending on the weather.
Zach Iscol, commissioner of New York City Emergency Management, said in a press briefing Wednesday that while smoke patterns are difficult to forecast precisely, “we expect this to be a multiple-day event.”
He also warned that even once this particular event is over, the intensity of the Canadian fire season thus far suggests the threat of similar events “over the next few months.”
“The latest smoke models show further deterioration in the early afternoon through tomorrow morning, with smoke conditions possibly looking better sometime tomorrow during the day with improvements possibly tomorrow night, into Friday morning,” he said.
The conditions being experienced in the upper Midwest and East Coast are nothing new for some western states where the effects of wildfires are more commonly felt.
But that should not be seen as minimizing exactly how bad it was in New York and some other parts of the East Coast.
Dan Jaffe, atmospheric sciences professor at the University of Washington, said that what parts of the East Coast are experiencing, particularly in upstate New York, is “comparable” with some of the worst days the West Coast has seen from wildfire pollution.
“In upstate New York these are almost as bad as some of the worst days we’ve had in the West,” he said.
The health effects are also real, several experts warned.
Afif El-Hasan, a spokesperson for the American Lung Association, said that the fires could contain not only ash that can “irritate the lungs” but also could have additional chemicals if manmade structure burn up in the fires.
“This is particularly dangerous for people with underlying respiratory and heart conditions,” said Jeff Schlegelmilch, director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University, in an email.
“Exacerbation of current conditions like asthma and COPD, among others, can become life threatening issues in the near term,” Schlegelmilch added.
Adams recommended caution.
“We recommend vulnerable New Yorkers stay inside and all New Yorkers should limit outdoor activity to the greatest extent possible,” he said during a briefing. “This is not the day to train for a marathon or to do an outside event with your children.”
Haze from western wildfires is sometimes seen in Eastern cities, but the scenes in New York on Wednesday are rare.
Canada is experiencing what NASA has described as an “unusually intense” start to its wildfire season that included fires in the province of Quebec that were caused by lightning.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Aerosol Watch said that the fires “ grew uncontrollably ” over the weekend and brought “code red” and “code orange” air quality to the U.S. states of Illinois, Michigan and Wisconsin.
Jaffe, the Washington atmospheric sciences professor, warned that just staying inside may not be sufficient to protect yourself.
He recommended that people invest in an air purifier, or make their own using a 20-inch box fan and a furnace filter. Outside, he said, people should wear an N95 or KN95 mask.
Schlegelmilch, with Columbia, said that the speed at which the haze, and the associated risks, recede will depend largely on the prevailing winds and other weather patterns in the days ahead.
“Weather changes may bring relief, but as long as the fires are burning, winds can shift back,” Schlegelmilch he said.
Jaffe meanwhile said in a follow up email that today and tomorrow will probably be the worst days but that he expects smoke to “come and go” over the next week depending on the progress of the fires as well as wind and weather patterns.
Generally, more wildfires are expected in the long term as the planet warms up and drought in the western U.S. continues due to climate change. While the West is still expected to face the worst impacts, there may also be more fires all around North America.
“All the predictions are that as it gets warmer, as the forests dry out, that we are going to see more wildfires across North America,” Jaffe said.