Earlier this week, New York City recorded its worst air quality in nearly three years as wildfires raged out West and in Canada (and continue to do so). A thick haze covered the city’s skyline as smoke from the climate-fueled fires coated the country, traveling thousands of miles to the East Coast.
Many New Yorkers have grown accustomed to poor air quality–so much so that photos of such events have become internet fodder. People took to social media to post hazy, romanticized pictures from “sunset cruises” and rooftop bars.
But wildfire haze differs from tailpipe emissions and other air contaminants that typically bombard city slickers. Studies have shown that wildfire pollution is more hazardous than car pollution, and when wildfire smog travels long distances, like say from coast to coast, the chemical makeup changes in a way that exacerbates the harm to humans.
New York City’s health department said it hadn’t witnessed a spike in asthma-related emergency room visits this week, but it recommends that “people with pre-existing heart and lung conditions limit outdoor activity on these air quality alert days.”
To get a sense of these risks, WNYC/Gothamist spoke with public health professor Dr. Erin Landguth. She studies air pollution models at the University of Montana. The interview was lightly edited for clarity.
Can you tell us why wildfire pollution on the West Coast is dangerous for New Yorkers? It’s coming from thousands of miles.
Yeah, it is diluted, right? So you would think in a sense that the concentrations that New Yorkers experience may not be as bad as some communities out west. The communities out west are closer to fires and are experiencing wildfire smoke levels that are three to four times as high as what the East Coast experienced over the last week or so.
But what is interesting and worrisome about wildfire smoke is this concept of aging. So as wildfire smoke travels from the West Coast to the East Coast, it could become more toxic to breathe in. This is because smoke from forest fires can linger in the atmosphere for weeks as it makes way across the U.S. undergoing a lot of chemical changes.
Is this air pollution different than say a what comes out of a car, which is what people typically think of when they think about the cities? That is correct. Wildfire smoke is different than other sources of air pollution, like industrial plants and traffic emissions, forest fire smoke has more carbon and the longer it is in the atmosphere, the longer it has to undergo a process called oxidation.
In essence, by the time the wildfire smoke reaches the East Coast, the smoke has a higher concentration of free radicals that you don’t want to breathe in. They have been shown to damage cells and tissues in the body.
Can you talk more about that? We see alerts, and we hear things in the media about free radicals and also dangerously high levels of particulate matter (PM). What are those particles?
First, it’s important to point out that clean air is essential for our basic human needs and that all air pollution is bad for us, and decades of research have shown that your pollution wreaks havoc on our bodies.
But what we do know is that the smallest of these particles–this fine particulate matter called PM 2.5, the ones we worry about the most–get deep into our lungs, irritate the lining, causing inflammation. And in the short term, we know that polluted air can worsen some conditions, such as lung diseases, and trigger asthma attacks.
And the long-term effects can include serious chronic diseases and systematic inflammation that over time can cause illnesses linked to heart disease. But because of this difficulty at distinguishing the differences between wildfire-specific smoke from other sources of air pollution, there’ve been very few studies looking into the public health impacts of wildfire smoke.
Do we know any of the long-term health effects of wildfire pollution, both in California and Oregon and then after the smoke gets here?
The exact toxicity of wildfire PM 2.5, as compared to other ambient sources of PM 2.5, is not really well understood.
Lots of folks are looking into this in vitro [with cells in a lab] and in vivo studies [involving animals or humans] have shown possible mechanisms explaining wildfire-specific PM have higher toxicity that produced inflammation and increased respiratory infections.
What should we be doing? Should people be altering their behavior?
Yes, for many of us in the west, the first thing to do is become aware of your air quality. Out west, we monitor our air quality alerts like weather alerts.
There are many resources out there such as AirNow from the Environmental Protection Agency to provide current air quality data. Blue Sky from the U.S. Forest Service is a great product that will model future smoke plumes, and then PurpleAir is also a great citizen science platform to check out for current air readings, but also check out your local information.
Then, no one’s going to like to hear this, but if you’re able to, you must stay inside and close up. Now, the problem here is that the air outside is also inside. So one must have a HEPA air filter. Now, if you are not able to go inside or stay inside, many people aren’t, then we are back to wearing masks, and you must wear the N95s, and wear them properly, secure to your face.
So our regular cloth, even triple-cloth masks that we’re used to, will filter out viruses but not the smaller air pollution particles that we are worried about here.
If the answer is for people to buy an air purifier or buy an air conditioner, a lot of people don’t have the means to buy these things, to protect themselves from the air.
There’s lots of organizations that have sprouted up out West, such as Climate Smart Montana. They’re working to develop cheaper air filtration systems. And so there’s options out there. You can also DIY an air filtration system.
So, there are ways and at least some help out there.