Canadian wildfires are spreading smoke across parts of the Northeast for a second straight week. By midday Tuesday, the worst air quality measured nationwide belonged to parts of New York and Connecticut, while New Jersey also carried a heavy burden.
The primary pollutant was particulate matter — microscopic solids or liquids that can be breathed deep inside the lungs. Wildfire smoke comes with a number of hazardous ingredients, but particulate matter is among the worst due to how it exacerbates chronic afflictions like asthma and heart disease.
Most of New York — from its western reaches to downstate — spent Tuesday under “unhealthy” outdoor conditions, as gauged by the air quality index (AQI). It’s a nationally standardized, color-coded system for communicating pollution. By Tuesday evening, the AQI had risen to "very unhealthy" across New York City, which meant the risk of health effects had increased for everyone and not just groups with pre-existing conditions.
Even though air is all-encompassing, New Yorkers aren’t powerless when it comes to keeping particulate matter out of their lungs. Jack Caravanos, a clinical professor of environmental public health sciences at NYU, joined WNYC host Sean Carlson on All Things Considered to talk about some modes for protecting one’s health during wildfire season.
Their conversation came Tuesday afternoon as New York state environmental officials extended an air quality alert through Wednesday night. They’re advising people to avoid strenuous outdoor activity if possible. Mayor Eric Adams issued a mask recommendation Tuesday evening for older adults and people with breathing conditions or heart disease. His office also scheduled a briefing for Wednesday morning at 10 a.m. to update the public.
Locals may want to keep this collective advice on hand this summer, given climate change is turning parts of the tri-state into wildfire hotspots.
An interview transcript is available below. It was lightly edited for clarity.
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Sean Carlson: Can you start by reminding us what exactly particulate matter is and why it is dangerous?
Jack Caravanos: Well, when you burn something, you end up with tiny, tiny, microscopic particles that are organic in nature — carbonaceous — and they penetrate deep into the lung. Cigarette smoke is actually a good example — that smoke, that haze is actually billions of tiny particles, and they go pretty deep into the lung.
What’s the best way to keep it out of the lungs?
Well, clearly the best way in public health is to prevent it from ever happening, and that's a whole other discussion. Why are these fires happening and how can we prevent them from spreading and minimize them?
The reality is we can't rely on that all the time, so the most immediate way is personal protection — the masks and respirators that we use that you see firefighters using.
Speaking of masks, we’ve seen people walking around wearing surgical masks. Are those good enough or do they want a higher quality one?
Surgical masks will do something. As a matter of fact, anything over your mouth will have some beneficial effect.
But we would prefer you wear at least an N95, a KN95, which is a very tight, filter material — that we have all learned a lot about during COVID.
The key thing is that the mask should fit very tightly around your nose and cheeks so that you don't get any bypass.
The biggest concern I have with what we saw during COVID is people were very good at wearing masks, but they weren't good at wearing them the right way.
Now, the air quality index is a color-coded system for judging the safety of what we breathe in.
Orange tells people with asthma and chronic conditions to be on guard.
Red — where New York City has been at all day — elevates that warning for more members of the general public.
But what does that mean for people? How are we supposed to change our behavior to stay protected? We have to breathe the air, don’t we?
Absolutely. There's no way around that, but we could definitely do things to minimize our exposure.
The red stands for unhealthy, and the conditions that cause us are kind of rare. We have a forest fire, which is very low to the ground blowing in from a odd direction. We don't usually get winds from the north, and it's coming right down the Hudson Valley — right into Philadelphia, New York, Trenton, Connecticut, Boston. The whole area is being inundated with this cloud,
The best way is to really minimize any type of physical activity that would exacerbate the deposition of these particles into your lungs. That means go easy on the jogging. Go easy on the tennis. Try to stay indoors because the indoor air will stay cleaner, longer — assuming we're not opening windows.
It may be safer just to stay indoors. 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.
You mentioned the causes of the smoke being here, those wildfires in Canada. Record heat is driving those. New Jersey is also on pace for a record year for fires.
Obviously, climate change is at play here. You talk to people from California who say, well, these fires are a way of life now. They just kind of expect them every year.
Do New Yorkers need to be prepared for smoke hazards going forward here? Is this a regular part of life now?
All estimates seem to indicate that this is only going to get worse — that the droughts are lasting longer and we're seeing higher temperatures. It was over 90 degrees in New York just last week.
We need to be prepared for more of this. To say "it's a fluke, it won't happen again" is, I think, shortsighted. There’s a lot of things we could do with forest fires and forest management. There are some solutions that way.
Ultimately, we need to get ready for more of these changes. I don't think there's anything you and I can do in the next six months that will minimize forest fires, but society as a whole needs to act.