Wildfire Haze Adds To New York’s Climate Change Planning Needs

Amidst an orange sky and air that smelled of campfire smoke, Amadou Sall offered Central Park carriage tours to those who passed by. While some people wore masks to protect against the unusual haze that clouded Manhattan, Sall did not. He’d left for work without it. 

Patting his chest, Sall said he knew the smoke could harm his lungs. He planned to drink milk when he returned to his apartment. “With smoke like this you need to drink a lot of milk,” he said. Sall’s mother taught him to drink milk in Senegal when the air got bad. 

Sall remembered his mask as he worked through the rest of the week, and the smoke cleared. He said he would continue to drink milk every evening, knowing the smoke could come again. 

When the wildfires in Canada decreased air quality across the Northeastern United States, New York City officials urged residents indoors. Mayor Eric Adams kept schools open but canceled all outdoor activities for NYC public school students. The New York Department of Health recommended residents spend more time indoors and close their home windows. The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation issued an air quality health advisory for New York City until midnight the following evening. The advisory remained in place until Friday night. 

While the Mayor’s office announced a toll-free air quality hotline to help inform residents, many criticized the city’s response time to the “smoke wave” as a sign that the city is unprepared. Although the wildfire smoke has subsided, it remains a climate change-driven environmental hazard for which New York officials will need to develop a more specific response. 

“New York City and New York State have been bombarded with the impacts of the climate crisis that are disproportionately felt by millions of our residents that are people of color and that are lower income,” said Shiv Soin, co-executive director of TREEAge, a youth-led nonprofit that advocates for environmental justice policies in New York City. 

Other states that experience wildfires more frequently, such as California and Oregon, have regulations to protect workers exposed to unhealthy air quality and wildfire smoke. The New York State Department of Labor suggested workers who become sick use paid sick leave accruals, if available. Throughout the air quality advisory, when New York momentarily became the city with the worst air quality in the world, many outdoor workers remained on the job all over town. 

Food delivery drivers zoomed through city bike lanes. Mobile food vendors patiently waited for customers to approach their trucks. Construction workers continued to drill away. When the air quality health advisory was announced, Sall watched many of the bikers he worked with leave. “I watched most of my boys go home,” he said. By 5 p.m., the usually crowded Columbus Circle had far fewer carriage drivers around. Sall stayed to keep a tour reservation a group scheduled three months ago. They had already paid Sall and so he had to work. On Wednesday afternoon, he had no plans to work outdoors the next day. 

Mayor Adams advised vulnerable residents to wear N95 or KN95 masks. The New York City fire department, NYPD, and state-owned facilities distributed free N95 masks to residents at various locations. The medical-grade masks would protect against the microscopic particles within the smoke. 

Recently returned from prayer, Sall had forgotten the mask he had worn earlier Wednesday. “Even without customers, we need this to protect ourselves from this smog,” he said about face masks. “This smog is no good for your breathing or lungs.” Sall noticed more of his customers wore masks that day as they sat through his tours. 

The smoke came from the wildfires that burned through Quebec’s forest.“Wildfires, by definition, are large events that last over a period of time. When they are in close proximity to populations, population centers, like these past few days, we will get to see the impact,” according to Ilias Kavouras, professor of Environmental, Occupational, and Geospatial Health Sciences at the City University of New York.  

According to the Environmental Defense Fund, higher temperatures and droughts can increase the frequency of wildfires.  “We’ll be impacted by the smoke plume that it is very intense and it lasts for a long period of time,” Kavouras said. According to Kavouras, the plumes of smoke contain chemicals from the combustion of organic material from the trees and grass. “This is going to affect everybody who breathes this smoke.” 

Smoke from wildfires contains particulate matter, fine particles that are invisible to the eye. The smallest of the particles, with diameters less than 2.5 microns, cause the greatest health impacts. These particles are categorized as PM2.5 and are small enough to enter the lungs and diffuse into the bloodstream. Researchers have linked PM2.5 to increased asthma attacks, respiratory and cardiovascular conditions. 

Wildfire smoke also contributes to the formation of ground-level ozone. Ozone in the atmosphere, typically considered good ozone, absorbs ultraviolet rays from the sun. But ground-level ozone is a toxic pollutant within smog. Depending on the amount of exposure, ground-level ozone pollution can lead to health issues from coughing and wheezing to aggravating already existing conditions such as bronchitis and asthma.

 “Some of these chemicals can be toxic. Others are carcinogenic and mutagenic,” Kavouras said. “Because we’re inhaling them in large quantities over a certain period of time, they can cause impact for those who have to be outside during that time and they don’t use any protective measures.” 

On Thursday, the second day of the health advisory, Saidu Nazir continued to work outside because, like many, his job did not have a work-from-home option. Nazir, a ticket agent, sold tickets for bus tours on the sidewalks of Midtown Manhattan. He wore a mask over his face, a practice he continued even as the COVID-19 pandemic ended, as he tried to sell tickets to a smaller-than-usual crowd. By 1 p.m., Nazir had only sold two tickets. On better days, he could sell up to 50 tickets, enough to fill an entire bus. 

“Our job is to stay outside,” Nazir said.  “So even though the environment is being polluted, we still have to come out to interact with people. The reason why we are here is to make money. To pay the bills.” 

Later the same day, Natalia Lima Aguilar administered Covid-19 tests outdoors at 40th Street and Broadway.  Aguilar wore a white N95 mask as she swabbed the nose of a man taking a Covid-19 test. She said the reaction to the smoke reminded her of the early pandemic days; she noticed far more people wore masks than they did before this week. “All day yesterday people asked me for masks,” Aguilar said. Aguilar donned her own mask that day to work in the smog as she worried about her asthma.

MTA employee Shanita Hancle gives out masks at the Fulton Street subway station amid hazy conditions due to smoke from the Canadian wildfires on June 08, 2023 in New York City.  Credit: Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images
MTA employee Shanita Hancle gives out masks at the Fulton Street subway station amid hazy conditions due to smoke from the Canadian wildfires on June 08, 2023 in New York City. Credit: Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images

According to Kavouras, those with existing diseases, particularly respiratory diseases, asthma, or other breathing-related problems such as COPD, should take precautions as the particulate matter will be more likely to cause an attack or more severe symptoms. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates there are more than 21 million adults living with asthma in the United States, 8.4 percent of the national population. The New York City Environment and Health Data Portal reported that in 2020 there were 597,000  adults aged 18 and older who live with asthma in the city, which accounts for 9.3 percent of the city’s population. The dataset comes from the New York City Community Health Survey. The annual survey tracks the health of New Yorkers across all five boroughs. Neighborhoods such as the Rockaways (24.7 percent), Fordham (18 percent), and East New York (17.4 percent) are estimated to have the greatest percentage of adults living with asthma in the data set. 

The climate crisis disproportionately impacts Black and brown communities and low-income communities. These communities also face increased long-term exposure to air pollutants in their everyday lives and jobs. One study found people of color are exposed to higher concentrations of poor air quality regardless of region or income. Although the study did not determine which emission source drove this disparity,  their research showed that nearly all major emission categories contributed to systemic PM2.5 exposure for people of color. 

“When something like COVID happens or wildfires happen, when these kinds of events from not within the communities but outside arrived, they affect everyone,” said Georgetown professor of urban law and policy Sheila Foster. “These communities tend to suffer worse because the baseline quality of their environment is lower than other communities.” 

Foster refers to the cumulative impacts of exposure to pollutants that people face in their home, work, and prayer environments combined with the exposure to pollutants from natural disasters such as wildfires. “So by cumulative impacts what we mean is that it literally is a kind of stacking of types of exposure to one or more pollutants,” said Foster. 

“It’s even worse for essential workers who really cannot stay inside as many other people could,” said Foster. “I think in the case of New York City because there was no advance warning from public officials, people didn’t even have a chance to grab their masks right on the day that the air quality began to decline.” 

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Soin believed the haze would clear in a few days as air quality returned to normal and by Friday morning, Manhattan’s skies began to clear. Soin will continue to watch how the city and the state manage short-term environmental crises such as the one that occurred last week when the smoke is not present. “We need to be more prepared because wildfire seasons are becoming more and more intense. They’re becoming more and more frequent.” In October 2017, extreme fires in California prompted scientists to consider the impact of wildfire smoke on children. Throughout the years, wildfires have burned close to superfund sites, releasing toxins, throughout the United States. As wildfires increase in frequency and intensity, they will each bring their own set of environmental hazards to at-risk communities. 

Some experts are looking for more policies to protect residents and workers from wildfire smoke. “In these times, it’s about making sure our community and our people are safe,” Soin said. “But once this smoke clears in a few days, we need to make sure that our state is passing correct policies.” Some states, such as California and Oregon, already have adopted regulations to protect outdoor workers from wildfire smoke.  

Experts argue the response needed to address climate inequality will need to use language that acknowledges the disproportionate impacts of the crises.  “If you use a policy-neutral or income-neutral stance, that’s going to basically ensure the status quo.” Julia Sze said. Sze has written books on environmental justice, geography, and public policy. “You have to do more to make it easier for the people who are more vulnerable.” 
On June 12, the New York City Department of Health announced that, while no health advisory remained in place, residents should still take precautions as air quality can still vary and reach levels unhealthy for those with heart and breathing problems.

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                Juanita Gordon is a fellow at Inside Climate News. She graduated from Hamilton College, earning a B.A. in Geosciences with a minor in Africana Studies. After her undergraduate studies, she completed a 2022 AmeriCorps service year in New Orleans where she created visual graphics to help explain local government processes. Gordon recently graduated with her M.S. in Journalism at Columbia University where she reported on textile waste, air quality, and local environmental policies. 

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