Samantha Maldonado and Rachel Holliday Smith, The City
Smoke from wildfires in Canada brought another day of especially bad air quality in New York City on Wednesday, canceling after school activities for school kids, muddling the skyline and smelling up the streets.
The air quality index in the city reached at least 300 AQI, a measure of various air pollutants on a single scale, which is the highest ever recorded here. The higher the AQI scores, the worse the air quality. As smoke conditions worsened Wednesday afternoon, the Federal Aviation Administration grounded flights at LaGuardia Airport because of low visibility.
Public city beaches were also closed on Wednesday at 3:00 p.m., according to the Parks Department.
In recent summers, wildfire smoke has visited New York City from the West Coast, but this week’s haze is the most severe in decades. And we’re in for more of the same throughout the week and possibly into the weekend, officials and meteorologists predict.
“We expect this to be a multiple day event,” said Zach Iscol, commissioner for the city Office of Emergency Management, on Wednesday.
The poor conditions — brought on by smoke in the atmosphere that contains chemicals and particulate matter that can damage the lungs, heart and other organs — caught many New Yorkers off guard this week, particularly since city officials were slow to communicate as the haze poured in.
Public schools announced activity cancellations for Wednesday after 11 p.m. on Tuesday. The mayor spoke to the media on the third day of smoke conditions, the morning after the city saw levels of pollution that earned New York a dubious title: most polluted city in the world.
Mayor Eric Adams, however, defended his administration on Wednesday saying at a press conference that “there’s no blueprint or playbook for these type of issues” and urged reporters to “not create controversy where there is none.”
“There were no late notifications,” he said, speaking from the Brooklyn headquarters of the emergency management agency. “Our role as an administration is to make sure that we give good information, but don’t create panic.”
THE CITY spoke with experts about how New Yorkers should stay safe during the dip in air quality. Here’s our guide, which we will continue to update with new information:
How worried should you be?
If you are in what officials call a vulnerable or sensitive group — the elderly, children and people with respiratory, heart or other health issues — you should take this seriously. Stay inside and monitor any symptoms as they arise, health officials say. The risks are higher for pregnant people, children and the elderly and those with chronic lung and respiratory conditions like asthma and COPD. Particulate matter exposure can worsen heart and lung diseases, trigger asthma attacks and heart attacks.
And all New Yorkers should limit their outdoor activity. “Avoid going outside unless you absolutely have to,” said city health commissioner Ashwin Vasan on Wednesday.
What should I do if I have to work outside? Should I wear a mask?
Yes, according to Vasan. While the city’s air quality alert is in effect, wear a tight-fitting, high-quality mask like a KN95 or N95 while outside — whether you’re working or just taking a walk.
Ilias Kavouras, professor of environmental sciences at the CUNY Graduate School of Public Health, echoed that advice.
“We should be very cautious and concerned,” he said. “People should wear their masks. I hope by now everyone at least has a couple of them leftover from what we went through the last three years.”
Should I exercise outside?
No. Vigorous activity outside, even for healthy people, can cause symptoms like inflammation, fatigue, difficulty breaking or irritation of the eyes, nose or throat.
“This is not the day to train for a marathon,” said Mayor Eric Adams on Wednesday.
How does this compare to a typical bad air quality day?
An AQI between 0 and 50 is good, with little to no risk, according to the National Weather Service. New York City’s average air quality in recent years has remained in that range, per IQAir, a Switzerland-based air quality tech company.
The threshold for an air quality alert from the city’s Office of Emergency Management is 100 AQI, according to Iscol, the agency’s commissioner.
Dr. George Thurston, a professor of medicine and population health at New York University School of Medicine, said the particulate matter from wood burning is less toxic — based on a per mass basis — than the particulate matter that comes from burning fossil fuels.
That means that New Yorkers should worry more about the toxic fumes they breathe every day from traffic exhaust than isolated, relatively rare wildfire smoke events.
“Over the long haul, those have a much greater cumulative effect on their health than a brief high episode like this,” he said in an email.
New York City’s air quality has improved considerably over the past few decades as a result of city, state and federal regulations, but there’s still much progress to be made.
People who live or work in neighborhoods that typically tend to have worse air quality because of power plants or industrial facilities located nearby or highways running through — like in the South Bronx — may be even more at risk than others.
The wildfire smoke would cause “a double whammy,” Thurston said. In those neighborhoods, which tend to be poorer, the rates of emergency room visits for asthma are three times higher than in more affluent areas.
He added that the most effective way to reduce air pollution is to decrease fossil fuel combustion locally, as well as slash emissions from vehicles, buildings and power plants.
“In so-called normal times, we get a fair amount of our pollution from power plants in the midwest, like Ohio,” said Dr. Steven Markowitz, director of the Barry Commoner Center for Health and the Environment at Queens College, who for over a decade has run air quality monitors around the city.
How safe is the air in the subway system?
There is no publicly available data on air quality within the train system and, when asked, MTA spokesperson Kayla Shults said only: “The MTA is closely monitoring reports of atmospheric conditions which are being pushed into the New York metropolitan area, including smoke, and recommends heeding guidance that the City and State are providing to the public.”
The agency appears to have different advice for its workers. In an internal bulletin obtained by THE CITY, a New York City Transit safety official wrote that N95 or KN95 masks “must be provided to employees upon request.”
Within train cars, the MTA has piloted air filtration systems designed to replace the air inside a car a dozen times an hour. But those systems are installed only in a fraction of subway cars.
Can I run an air conditioner? What about opening the window?
If you do run your air conditioner, make sure the filter is clean and functioning properly. Otherwise, the air conditioner may just be blowing in dirty air from outside without cleaning it — which won’t help you at all.
The good news, said Kavouras of CUNY, is “the vast majority of air conditioners don’t bring outside air inside.”
“They cool it down by circulating indoor air,” he told THE CITY.
The Environmental Protection Agency has more tips here on using an air conditioner during smoky conditions.
And don’t open your window. If the air quality is bad, keep your windows as sealed and closed as possible.
Where can I monitor the air quality in my neighborhood?
There are a number of places to see what the Air Quality Index, or AQI, is in your area.
Sites like IQAir and AirNow provide information about the concentration of pollutants in the air, and you can learn about different neighborhood’s real-time air quality using this tool from the city health department. The National Weather Service also publishes air quality notifications.
Experts say it’s important to check on localized air quality, as certain neighborhoods experience worse effects, and the extent of the pollution changes as the day goes on.
Have a question for THE CITY newsroom about the air quality situation? Email firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject line “Air.”
THE CITY is an independent, nonprofit news outlet dedicated to hard-hitting reporting that serves the people of New York.