Apr 27, 2023

Wildfires in Canada Worsen Air Quality for Millions: Live Updates

Air pollution warnings were in effect across Canada and the United States, including New York City, where conditions were expected to worsen during the day on Wednesday.

Mike Ives

Millions of people across North America were waking up on Wednesday to another day of hazy skies and serious air pollution caused by smoke that had drifted down from Canadian wildfires a day earlier.

Hundreds of wildfires have been burning in eastern Canada for weeks. On Tuesday, eye-watering smoke from the fires drifted south and cast a pall over parts of the U.S. Northeast and Midwest. The grayish haze had hints of orange, yellow or purple, depending on where you stood. One New York City commuter described the smell as progressing during the day from "burnt toast" to "campfire."

In Manhattan on Tuesday night, the Air Quality Index hit 218, indicating that it was very unhealthy and was likely to produce widespread effects among healthy people and serious ones for those with respiratory conditions, according to federal guidelines. Such a reading is typical in a smoggy, traffic-choked megacity like Jakarta or New Delhi but rare in New York City, where decades of state and federal laws have helped to reduce emissions.

The city's air quality was expected to improve overnight but deteriorate on Wednesday afternoon and evening, Mayor Eric Adams said, adding that schools would remain open but not hold outdoor activities. The city and much of New York State were under an air quality health advisory alert — indicating that the index was expected to surpass 100 — that was in effect until Wednesday night.

Here's what else to know:

Canada, where nearly 250 fires were burning out of control as of early Wednesday, was also in for more haze. Parts of Quebec and Ontario were under a smog warning, and experts warned that the air in Toronto and elsewhere was likely to worsen — probably on Thursday — before getting better.

Warnings were in effect early Wednesday across a wide portion of the Northeast and Midwest. Philadelphia was in "code orange," indicating a likely air pollution reading of up to 150. The haze was expected to linger for a couple of days because the weather system pushing it around the atmosphere was relatively stagnant, the National Weather Service said in a forecast.

Molly Peterson

Thick smoke can sneak into your home through loose seals and cracks; closing those up can help. Simply shutting windows can cut pollution by about 30 percent. If it still smells like a barbecue inside on a smoky day, placing wet towels around cracks under doors and around windows can slow smoke's entry into your home.

The E.P.A. also recommends avoiding activities like cooking, vacuuming or smoking on smoky days, which can stir up pollutants already inside your home. And the American Lung Association recommends using a good welcome mat to wipe your shoes on, or taking shoes off altogether when you’re walking around inside your house, to avoid tracking in contaminants.

If your indoor space is larger than an air purifier can filter, the E.P.A. recommends dedicating one room as a "clean room" to use as a refuge on smokier days. But avoid using rooms where you create smoke or other particles indoors, like the kitchen, or any room with a lot of windows and doors.

Judson Jones

Smoky skies are possible through Friday as the current weather pattern pushes the wildfire smoke south. The intensity of the smoke will vary.

Judson Jones

Forecasters with the National Weather Service in Buffalo warn that today's plume of smoke in their region could make the sky even more opaque than it was on Monday, when the sun was barely visible at times because of how thick and low to the ground the smoke was.

Judson Jones

Haze and smoke will continue today, with another significant push of thick wildfire smoke likely across the Northeast, according to forecast weather models. The more intense plume of smoke is expected to hit major cities like New York later today and into tonight.

Jennie Coughlin

The skies above Times Square are hazy with wildfire smoke on Wednesday morning.

Mike Ives, Jin Yu Young and Muktita Suhartono

The dangerous haze hovering over parts of the Northeast and Midwest on Wednesday morning was highly unusual for the United States. For many people around the world, it would be somewhat normal.

Cities across Asia, Africa and Latin America have been so polluted for so long that air-quality readings like the ones expected across parts of New York State on Wednesday — which is expected to pose risks for people with respiratory problems — would not be seen as particular cause for alarm.

"Maybe foreigners can feel it, but for me it's just the normal air I breathe every day," Paiboon Kaewklangrong, a taxi driver in Bangkok, said on Wednesday. "Polluted, hot, dusty. But it is what it is."

In a prepandemic study, the World Health Organization found that 99 percent of the world's population lived in places that did not meet its guidelines for healthy air quality.

Bad air can be dangerous, especially if you’re breathing it over a lifetime. Short-term effects include coughing, congestion and inflammation. Longer-term exposure can damage your liver and brain, and increase the risk of blood clots that can cause heart attacks.

An added risk with smoke from wildfires is that the particulate matter they produce, known as PM, can mix with emissions from cars, factories and stoves in urban areas, said Rajasekhar Balasubramanian, an air quality expert at the National University of Singapore.

"It is therefore reasonable to assume that the PM in smoke haze is more toxic than the usual urban PM," he said.

The W.H.O. estimates that the effects of outdoor and household air pollution are associated with about 6.7 million annual deaths worldwide, mostly in low- and middle-income countries.

South Asia has nine of the world's 10 cities with the worst air, and "persistently hazardous" pollution that causes an estimated two million premature deaths a year, the World Bank said in a recent report. That pollution is partly a function of emissions from vehicles and heavy industry, but also from brick kilns, burning fields and other sources. People from poor families, who spend more of their lives outdoors and can't afford air filters, tend to face the greatest risks.

In East Asia, years of chronic air pollution is one reason that wearing face masks was common well before the coronavirus pandemic. School children there are used to playing inside on bad air days. In the Korean language, bad air has a specific term — fine dust — and its levels are displayed in real time in places like train stations, bus stops and elevators.

"I know fine dust is a problem, and I don't think twice about it anymore," said Lee Hyung-ko, a university student from Seoul, the South Korean capital. "It's not going away soon, so we just have to live with it."

Air pollution can also weigh heavily on politics. In South Korea, would-be presidents have made reducing air pollution part of their campaign platforms. In China, smog over Beijing and other cities has been seen over the years as a failure of leadership. And smoke that occasionally wafts from forest and peatland fires in Indonesia to other parts of Southeast Asia tends to infuriate neighboring governments.

Sometimes political pressure over bad air leads to tangible changes. Starting in the late 1980s, as Mexico City came under international criticism for its bad air, the city and nearby state government undertook a series of measures, such as limiting how many days cars could circulate each week and shutting an urban refinery. The reforms mostly worked: The city's air improved dramatically.

In other cases, urban air has improved because of something that no one saw coming. In Bangkok, as in New Delhi and other cities, for example, the air in the city of 11 million people improved noticeably during the coronavirus pandemic, said Mr. Paiboon, the taxi driver, who has been driving a cab for 18 years.

Now it's back to normal.

"If you drive early morning up on the tollway, you can see it's all hazy," he said. "It looks like fog, but it's not. It's all dust particles."

Steve Kenny

Even in the dark, as New Yorkers wait to see what color the sky will be at dawn, it is impossible to escape the smoke. A 50-block subway ride from Midtown to the Upper West Side, which takes about 15 minutes, ends with a sore throat and stinging eyes. You can't escape the smell, and clothes go right in the washer.

Eduardo Medina

Complaints of dry eyes, coughing and hoarseness. Patients calling their doctors to describe their difficulty breathing. Parents asking if their asthmatic children should attend school in-person.

Across New York City, doctors fielded questions and health problems from residents confronting dangerous smoke originating from Canadian wildfires and drifting through city streets on Tuesday, casting the sky in a pale hazy hue and prompting calls to medical providers.

A wave of New York City residents sensitive to smoke and feeling symptoms caused by the poor air quality were contacting health professionals on Tuesday night as the pollutants hovered above, according to Dr. Ramon Tallaj, the chairman of SOMOS Community Care, a network of health care providers in the city that treats more than 1 million patients in lower-income neighborhoods.

"We have to sound the alarm," Dr. Tallaj said, "because all these symptoms are going to happen."

New York City had the worst air quality of any major city in the world at one point on Tuesday night, according to a live ranking by IQAir, a technology company that tracks air quality and pollution around the world. Historically, New York City does not rank in the top 3,000 cities with the worst air quality, according to IQAir.

Dr. Tallaj said that many doctors have been busy all day answering calls from patients experiencing symptoms like coughing and loss of breathe, and wondering what to do.

In an interview, Dr. Tallaj said that his voice sounded hoarse because he has respiratory problems and was already suffering from the smoke, too.

Some people have had to go to urgent care because they were having difficulty breathing, he said.

"A lot of particles are in the air," he said. "It's going to get into your body through your skin, through your eyes and through your respiratory tract. It's going to cause you irritation."

Dr. Denise Nuñez, a pediatrician in the Bronx who is a part of the SOMOS network, said that most of the patients she saw on Tuesday at the urgent care center and at her clinic were for lung-related irritations, especially from people with asthma.

Most patients have been advised by doctors to stay home and to put on a mask if they have to go outside.

Nathaniel Styer, a spokesman for New York City Public Schools, said education officials were "making schools aware of the air quality health advisory," recommending that outdoor activity be limited and asking that "special attention be made to vulnerable students and staff populations."

Mayor Eric Adams said on Twitter that New Yorkers with heart or breathing issues should limit their time outside to "to the absolute necessities." Gov. Kathy Hochul urged residents in a statement "to take appropriate steps to help limit risk of exposure."

Dr. Tallaj said doctors have been reiterating the same message: "This is not the time to be in the street."

Dan Bilefsky and Vjosa Isai

More than 400 active wildfires were burning across Canada on Tuesday night, according to the authorities, exacerbating a wildfire season that has forced the evacuation of tens of thousands of people, created a sense of anxiety across the sprawling country and triggered air quality alerts hundreds of miles south in the United States.

The danger of wildfires, which over the past few weeks have stretched from British Columbia on the west coast to Nova Scotia, nearly 2,900 miles away in the east, was brought home on Tuesday to the political heart of the nation. A thick haze hovered over Parliament Hill and the soaring Gothic Revival building that houses Canada's Parliament in Ottawa. The sun was obscured by smoke, the sky an apocalyptic orange hue.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada said that hundreds of soldiers were deployed across the country to help with firefighting efforts. "This is a scary time for a lot of people," Mr. Trudeau said early this week, noting that many Canadians who had to evacuate in recent days had just a few hours to pack before fleeing their homes.

In a country known for its picturesque landscapes and orderliness, the out-of-control wildfires have stoked unease and underlined the perils of global warming. Scientific research suggests that heat and drought associated with climate change are major reasons for the increase in bigger and more intense fires buffeting the country.

The fires have also underscored the interconnectedness between Canada and its neighbor to the south with smoke from the hundreds of wildfires blazing in eastern Canada casting a hazy pall over New York City and polluting air quality from Minnesota to Massachusetts.

In eastern Canadian cities like Toronto, Montreal and Ottawa, where the majority of the country's people live, which had thus far been largely immune from wildfires in far away provinces, Tuesday ended any sense of complacency. Ottawa was among the places in Ontario with the highest health risk from its poor air quality, according to local authorities.

Palls of smoke also hung over Toronto, the country's financial capital, on Tuesday night and schools announced that students would be spending recess on Wednesday inside. During the day, an acrid smell filled parts of the city as many residents avoided going outside.

"With wildfire smoke in the forecast for Toronto, is it time to bring back masks?" asked The Toronto Star, evoking bad memories of pandemic times.

With more than 160 active wildfires in Quebec on Tuesday, some residents in Montreal were shutting their windows. A smog hung over parts of the city, and health authorities advised residents in Laval, a city north of Montreal, to wear N95 masks.

The wildfires were also hurting businesses, with many mining companies suspending operations in Quebec.

Katrina Eyk, a senior meteorologist at Environment and Climate Change Canada, the ministry that coordinates environment policy, said that winds had been pushing plumes of wildfire smoke from Quebec across southern Ontario, undermining air quality and visibility. Canadian health authorities have warned the smoke can cause symptoms ranging from sore and watery eyes to coughing, dizziness, chest pains and heart palpitations.

"It's still pretty yucky out there," Ms. Eyk said from Toronto on Tuesday evening. "But on Thursday, it looks like with the wind overall shifting to the northeast, that plume could move directly overtop of the Greater Toronto Area and give pretty poor conditions."

The wildfires have already shaken British Columbia and Alberta, an oil and gas producing province, where residents of its largest city Calgary have sat down for breakfast in recent weeks as pungent smoke leaked in from cracks under their front doors.

On the east coast of Canada, in Halifax, Nova Scotia, a wildfire late last month forced the evacuation of more than 16,000 people.

Michael Mehta, an environmental social scientist and professor at Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops, British Columbia, said that the visceral reality of smoke hovering over major cities could foster renewed debate on the risks of climate change.

Until now, he said, many on the east coast had not been exposed, firsthand, to the health risks of air pollution caused by wildfires that have gripped the western provinces over recent years. "There's essentially a disconnect," he said. "They haven't had this experience."

Ed Shanahan

Mayor Eric Adams said in a news release late Tuesday that by 10 p.m. air quality in parts of New York City had become "very unhealthy," rising to 218 on the Environmental Protection Agency's Air Quality Index.

New York's air quality rating briefly ranked as the worst of any city in the world on Tuesday, according to the IQAir World Air Quality Index. By comparison, the city's air quality has generally been below 50 on the index in recent years, in the "good category," and even improved during the pandemic-driven lockdown in 2020, according to IQAir.

"While conditions are anticipated to temporarily improve later tonight through tomorrow morning, they are expected to deteriorate further tomorrow afternoon and evening," Mr. Adams warned. He noted that the state's Department of Environmental Conservation had issued a citywide air-quality health advisory.

The mayor indicated that the city's schools would be open on Wednesday and he urged all students to attend, but he added that schools would not be holding outdoor activities. About 10 Public Schools Athletic League soccer, baseball and softball games had been scheduled for Wednesday.

"We recommend all New Yorkers limit outdoor activity to the greatest extent possible," Mr. Adams said. "Those with pre-existing respiratory problems, like heart or breathing problems, as well as children and older adults, may be especially sensitive and should stay indoors at this time."

The mayor said he would brief the public on his administration's plans Wednesday morning.

Ed Shanahan

In a message posted on Twitter late Tuesday, Nathaniel Styer, a spokesman for New York City Public Schools, said education officials were "making schools aware of the air quality health advisory," "recommending that outdoor activity be limited" and asking that "special attention be made to vulnerable students and staff populations." It was not clear whether Public Schools Athletic League games scheduled for Wednesday would be postponed.

Jon Hurdle

Looking out from the 18th floor of a skyscraper in downtown Philadelphia on Tuesday afternoon, Megan Harper noticed that the city looked different. The light, filtered through a fog of smoke particles, cast the buildings in a "shimmery purple."

The city felt different, too. The poor air quality kept her "sneezing like a maniac" on her walk home.

Wildfires raging in eastern Canada have sent smoke drifting south, shrouding areas of the United States — like Philadelphia — largely unaccustomed to the effects of the conflagrations that tend to consume landscapes in the West. The hazy skies that draped Philadelphia reminded Ms. Harper, she said, of a visit to Colorado, where the air had been polluted by fires in Montana.

Carolyn Moneymaker, a software engineer who works in Center City Philadelphia, used to live in Colorado. During wildfires there, she said, the smoke would obscure the sun much as it did in Philadelphia on Tuesday.

"You would get this very distinct look where the sun is clearly shining but something is in front of it," Ms. Moneymaker, who now lives in suburban Malvern, Pa. "You can see something is blocking it out."

When she was out walking on Monday, Ms. Moneymaker noticed a grayish tinge to the sky. By Tuesday, she could hardly see other buildings from the window of her 27th floor of her workplace.

Maddy Wescott, a product manager for a technology company, said she noticed the poor air quality when she went outside her office building on Monday.

"I sat outside on the patio, and I could not stop coughing," said Ms. Wescott, 28, who lives in the Fairmount section of Philadelphia. "I almost went back in."

Tracey Tully

In Jackson, N.J., residents were coping with more than just poor air quality from Canadian wildfires. New Jersey's Forest Fire Service was struggling to contain a wildfire that was covering about 30 acres Tuesday evening near East Commodore Boulevard and Cedar Swamp Road in Jackson, a 60,000-resident community in Ocean County. Several roadswere closed and 30 structures were at risk of being consumed by fire, state officials said.

Scott Dodd

As wildfire smoke fills the skies with gray haze, it can also turn the sun (or moon) a bright red. I asked Kofi Donnelly, who teaches physics at a Brooklyn high school, to explain why. White light from the sun is made up of all colors in the spectrum, he said. But smoke particles in the air "tend to scatter the shorter wavelengths (bluish light) more than the longer wavelengths (reddish light). Therefore bluish light from the sun is scattered in a bunch of directions (not into your eyes), while reddish light still gets to your eyes."

Jesus Jimenez

That's a wrap in the Bronx, where the Yankees lost 3-2 against the Chicago White Sox. The announced attendance was 38,049 fans, who watched a two-hour and 28-minute ballgame on a night when officials were recommending limiting time outdoors. Several other minor league baseball games in the Northeast also went on tonight despite air quality alerts.

Molly Peterson

By some estimates, a good air filtration system can cut smoke pollution indoors by about 50 to 80 percent. When skies grow hazy, if you have central air and heating, close your windows and switch your system's filtration settings to recirculate.

Adding a higher efficiency filter, like one with at least a Minimum Efficiency Reporting Value (MERV) 13 rating, to central air systems makes them even more effective at removing small particles from smoke. If you don't have central air, portable air purifiers with HEPA filters can work well in smaller spaces.

Experts caution that you should avoid using air purifiers that rely on and emit ozone, which can be harmful even at low levels and can irritate the lungs. Check with your local public agencies to see if they provide guidance or financial support for buying air filters. Low-income people with certain respiratory conditions who live in the Bay Area, for instance, are eligible for free portable air filters.

If you can't find an affordable air purifier, you can make one out of a box fan, some tape and some high efficiency filters.

Jesus Jimenez

Bryan Ramsey, a National Weather Service meteorologist in New York, said that the New York City area could see some smoke clear by Wednesday morning, but that it was possible another thick plume of smoke could move into the region by Wednesday afternoon, much like the one New Yorkers saw on Tuesday. "It's going to be here for a while," Mr. Ramsey said of the smoke.

Jesus Jimenez

New York City has the worst air quality of any major city in the world right now, according to a live ranking by IQAir, a technology company that tracks air quality and pollution around the world. Historically, New York City does not rank in the top 3,000 cities with the worst air quality, according to IQAir.

Ben Shpigel

The New York Road Runners, the organization that owns and stages the New York City Marathon, urged runners living in areas polluted by the smoke to consider not running on Global Running Day on Wednesday. Jennifer Stowell, a postdoctoral fellow at Boston University's School of Public Health, who has studied the health effects of wildfires, told The Times in 2020 that wildfire smoke "may be more toxic" to the lungs than standard urban air pollution.

June 7 is Global Running Day, but if you're in NYC or any affected area, please read and follow your city's health advisory regarding air quality, and consider running another day.

Molly Peterson

If a wildfire is close enough that you can see flames or if your community is blanketed in smoke and ash, you should be prepared to evacuate if you’re instructed to do so, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

Even if you’re far from flames, but the smoke is darkening your skies, your safest choice may be to leave, Dr. Prunicki said. If that's not feasible, the likely next best thing is to stay inside and take steps to limit your smoke exposure.

According to the E.P.A., vulnerable people like older adults, children and those with heart or lung conditions should avoid going outside when the air quality index — a numerical value from 0 to 500 that indicates air pollution and health risk levels — goes over 100. Anything over 150 means it's unhealthy for anyone to be outside without a high-quality mask.

You can consult AirNow's interactive fire and smoke map, a federally-run tracker for air quality conditions. PurpleAir can also offer a more local picture of air quality, as can other products and apps, like IQAir and BreezoMeter.

For children, safety concerns arise when the air quality index is even lower. Because breathing smoke can increase the risk of asthma in children and might even have irreversible consequences for their immune cells, experts recommend that, when the air quality index is above 50, caregivers should start thinking about keeping children inside, especially if they already have asthma.

Eduardo Medina

New York State officials said that an air quality health advisory, an alert that indicates a health concern related to pollution in an area, will be in effect for much of the state starting at midnight. Long Island, New York City, eastern Lake Ontario, Central New York and Western New York will be affected.

Felice Belman

On her way home from work on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, Genevieve Cruz was making a quick pitstop into the CVS on Amsterdam Avenue, hoping the pharmacy was still selling masks. "I used to have one on me all the time for Covid," she said. "I can't believe I don't even have a single one anymore."

Eduardo Medina

The North Carolina Environmental Quality Department said the state would be under Code Red or Code Orange air quality alerts on Wednesday because of the "rapidly rising levels of fine particle pollution attributed to smoke" from the wildfires. Officials are urging residents to stay indoors as much as possible, particularly those with asthma.