Friday afternoon marked an important milestone in New York City’s air quality crisis.
For the first time since Tuesday, when the skies first filled with smoky particles from Canadian wildfires, pollution dropped to levels considered “good.” The Air Quality Index (AQI) showed a reading of 48, just under the threshold between “good” and “moderate.”
Northeast Jersey, meanwhile, remained slightly above that boundary. At this level, the air quality may affect people who are especially sensitive to airborne pollution.
Canadian wildfires in Ontario and Quebec had been delivering large amounts of dangerous smoke to the New York metro area. That was due to a stalled, swirling cyclone of air near Maine that was blocking the typically eastward airflow and forcing the smoke south.
Meteorologists say this air mass is weakening and shifting west over New York and surrounding states. It’s basically acting like a protective dome, and that’s now shifting the smoke plumes toward the Midwest.
But the tristate area sits on the edge of the dome, so some wisps may occasionally crossover. Smoke prediction models, created by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, show some crossover Friday night and again Sunday.
Based on the persistence of the dangerous air pollutants on Thursday, New York City and state officials extended the city’s air quality advisory to Friday evening. Effects of exposure to air pollution include coughing, eye irritation and shortness of breath.
Earlier in the week, officials in New York and New Jersey issued air quality warnings and asked residents to refrain from unnecessary outdoor activities. Now, though, many weekend events are going ahead as scheduled.
The situation is changing from hour to hour, so check the air quality in your area before going outside. Gothamist has compiled some local stats that will update in real time.
Masks and air purifiers can help protect people from some of the pollution’s health effects. If you’re using an air conditioner, be sure to close the fresh air intake to prevent outdoor air from entering your home, New York City Emergency Management Commissioner Zachary Iscol recommended on Wednesday. And people with conditions like asthma should be extra careful about their exposure.
Asthmatics visited emergency rooms for their symptoms almost twice as often on Wednesday compared to the day before, according to city-run public health tracking. The number of daily emergency room visits for asthma hasn’t been this high since late April, when tree pollen levels were at their highest. Thursday’s ER visit count was lower than Wednesday’s, but still elevated compared to the preceding week.
City-run air monitors scattered around Manhattan, Queens and the Bronx show that air pollution spiked Tuesday evening, then cooled off again before skyrocketing to new heights Wednesday afternoon. The readings dwarfed air pollution figures from last week, when fires in Nova Scotia also impacted local air quality. Róisín Commane, an assistant professor of earth and environmental science at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, cautioned that the monitor readings can be unreliable at very high pollutant concentrations.
“I’m not sure there’s many things that can measure well when the numbers are this high,” she said. “But once it’s above a certain amount, it’s toxic to people. So whether it’s 350 or 355 doesn’t really matter if you have to breathe it.”
Concentrations of PM2.5 have declined precipitously since then, according to the monitor data. As of Friday afternoon, the monitors are hovering around 10 micrograms of particles per cubic meter volume of air — the lowest readings they’ve shown since Monday. (Anything above 35 is considered unhealthy.)
The Canadian smoke may not be typical, but we’re also at risk of local fires this summer, Commane added.
“We had so little moisture in the springtime that our soils are exceedingly dry right now,” she said. “Fires could break out closer to home.”
This story is being regularly updated with the latest information.