Smoke over NYC: Is hazy air the new normal?

Our days of dangerous air quality may be just beginning

Statue of Liberty clouded by haze
(Image credit: Illustrated / Getty Images)

Much of the northeastern U.S. is under strict air quality warnings as wildfire smoke from Canada blankets the region. Canada could potentially have its worst-ever wildfire season as the country got an unusually early start, per Reuters. Currently, over 150 wildfires are burning in Quebec alone, according to NASA, and a storm system off the coast of Nova Scotia is spreading the smoke into the Northeast.

The smoke is expected to spread through the mid-Atlantic in the coming days, as well. Air quality is measured by the Air Quality Index which runs from 0 to 500 —created by the Environmental Protection Agency, the index measures ground-level ozone, particulates, carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, and sulfur dioxide. Wildfire smoke specifically adds to the level of particulates in the air because it contains PM2.5, "the tiniest pollutant yet also the most dangerous," CNN explained. Breathing in the smoke could have negative health implications, specifically impacting the heart and respiratory system. "If you can see or smell smoke, know that you're being exposed," William Barrett of the American Lung Association told CNN.

New York City is among the worst cities for air quality currently, and was the number one city with the worst air quality on Tuesday evening, per IQAir. While this air quality is fairly new to New York City, many other cities, namely those in developing nations, regularly have high levels of pollution. In addition, high air pollution levels may become commonplace as climate change worsens. As Jack Caravanos, a clinical professor of environmental public health sciences at NYU remarked on All Things Considered, "All estimates seem to indicate that this is only going to get worse."

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What are commentators saying?

Living in a particulate haze could become a more common occurrence. According to a 2022 study, the number of people in the U.S. who experienced at least one day of unhealthy air quality "increased 27-fold over the last decade." Denise Chow and Evan Bush reported for NBC News that polluted air from wildfire smoke "has become a significant health risk in the U.S., and it is growing worse."

Wildfires will likely become more prevalent globally because of the changing climate. "Climate change is causing prolonged spells of heat and drought, raising the risk of such blazes," Mark Gongloff wrote for Bloomberg. "Cranking up the heat in a system as complex as a planetary climate has complex effects, it turns out." With fire comes smoke, and "there's nowhere to escape the smoke," said David Wallace-Wells in The New York Times. He added that most of the wildfire pollution "is experienced by people living outside the state in which the trees are actually burning."

"In addition to worsening fires, climate change and the fossil fuels that cause it are increasing air pollution, both directly and indirectly," reported Rachel DuRose for Vox. A 2020 study found that the majority of the world's population "continues to be exposed to levels of air pollution substantially above WHO (World Health Organization) Air Quality Guidelines." In the industrialized world, air pollution is a problem disproportionately impacting developing nations. Countries like India and China regularly experience unhealthy levels of air pollution. "Air pollution is highest in cities and comes from a variety of sources, including the burning of natural gas, motor vehicles and industry," wrote Kelsey Barter for The Tennessean. "Air pollution is a global problem with local solutions."

"While global warming distributes its brutality over time and around the world," Wallace-Wells concluded in a different piece for the Times, "the effects of air pollution are far more concentrated locally." However, the wildfire smoke is "just one example of how the effects of rising temperatures will be felt all over the planet," Bloomberg's Gongloff continued. "Ignoring the universal effects of a hotter planet, from shrinking biodiversity to resource wars to refugee crises and more, is much more difficult."

What's next?

In the short term, there are ways to prevent the health implications of smoke inhalation. Staying indoors and avoiding heavy physical activity is best but, "if you are going outside and you have a respiratory condition of any type, definitely a respirator — an N95 or K95 mask — would be advisable," Caravanos urged. The world also needs to look at ways to slow climate change, including switching to renewable energy. Fossil fuels contributed to over one-third of wildfires in the western U.S., with emissions tracing back to just 88 companies.

In the long term, we may need to think about adapting to a new normal. "Even if we shut off fossil fuel emissions tomorrow, we still have a certain amount of warming in the system that's already happened," said Matthew Hurteau, a biology professor at the University of New Mexico, to Vox. "We're going to have to figure out how to live with it." The warming climate is worsening natural disasters including wildfires, and as many areas are facing drought conditions, wildfires will only grow more dire. As Hurteau concluded, "we have to start thinking about: how do we live in a more smoky world?"

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Devika Rao

Devika Rao is a staff writer for The Week. She graduated from Cornell University with a degree in Environment and Sustainability and a minor in Climate Change. Previously, she worked as a Policy and Advocacy associate in the nonprofit space advocating for environmental action from the business perspective. She is passionate about the environment, books, and music.