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Flight disruptions, limited time outdoors: How Canadian wildfire smoke could impact summer plans for Americans

Poor air quality impacts millions for second day
Hazardous air conditions from wildfire smoke impacts millions of Americans for second day 03:49

Smoke from Canadian wildfires seeped into the air over vast sections of the United States this week, bringing hazy skies and noxious fumes to cities across the Northeast and triggering health alerts, partial school closures and travel disruptions in several major metropolitan cities. And despite hopes for air quality to return to normal as smoke dissipates over the next few days, officials warn that elevated pollution, and the lifestyle restrictions that accompany it, could be back again periodically in the coming months.

Forecasts indicate that places bearing the brunt of the pollution — like New York City, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. — will begin to see relief heading into the weekend, as meteorologists say changing weather patterns will cause winds from a storm near Nova Scotia, which have for days pushed wildfire smoke downward into the U.S., to switch directions. But the new course could instead damage air quality in inland areas as far as the Ohio Valley, according to the National Weather Service, and the expected reprieve for people living in northeastern states and several Canadian provinces may only be temporary.

"The smoke will continue to move with the upper level winds, dissipating somewhat as it gets farther from its source," Jen Carfagno, a meteorologist at The Weather Channel, told CBS News on Wednesday. 

"But for people living downstream of those wildfires —both in Quebec and in western Canadian provinces— the wildfire smoke will continue to be a problem," Carfagno said. "And given this extreme and early start to the wildfire season in Canada, it's possible this scenario sets up again this summer."

LaGuardia Airport wildfire smoke
A Southwest airliner approaches LaGuardia Airport in New York on June 7.  David R.Martin/AP

Carfagno's warning echoed a host of similar ones from health officials and government leaders, particularly in New York City, where thick, orange fog shrouded skyscrapers and landmarks on Tuesday and Wednesday while air quality plummeted to one of the world's worst, according to the Swiss air quality technology company IQAir. 

With the city receiving consecutive "unhealthy" air quality ratings from the New York state Department of Environmental Conservation, officials urged residents to stay indoors and wear face masks during any necessary trips outside, noting the potential for outsize health consequences for children, older adults, and people with asthma or other preexisting respiratory conditions. 

New York City public schools cancelled recess and outdoor sports, before the Department of Education eventually announced a mandatory move to remote learning, for both students and staff, on Friday. Officials in Philadelphia and elsewhere imposed similar regulations.

Schools and related outdoor activities were far from the only ones affected by health concerns over dangerous air quality. On Wednesday, the Federal Aviation Administration slowed flights to and from several airports in and around New York City and Philadelphia as smoke infiltration caused low visibility, and public pools closed across the tristate area, while Jodie Comer, the Tony-nominated actor starring in a solo performance in the play "Prima Facie" on Broadway, exited the stage several minutes into the show because she said she was having difficulty breathing. Pride celebrations were postponed in various places, including New Jersey and, on Thursday, at the White House. 

At a press conference announcing New York City's health restrictions earlier in the week, City Emergency Management Commissioner Zachary Iscol said New Yorkers should prepare for the possibility of recurring air quality issues like this one throughout the summer.

"Smoke traveling from the current wildfires along the Canadian border has significantly impacted air quality here in New York City," Iscol said. "This is something we could continue to see, possibly, over the next few months."

New York Gov. Kathy Hochul shared a similar view, telling state residents on Wednesday that they may contend with the repercussions of smoke pollution "over the long haul."

"We can all feel it. It is an effect, one of the collateral damages of climate change," she said. "It's an environmental crisis, and I just want to make sure all New Yorkers are aware of this. You may not see it. You may not even feel it. But it is having a negative effect on everyone. So please take precautions throughout our state."

Wildfire season in Quebec, the eastern Canadian province where at least 150 blazes raged this week, according to the country's interagency fire center, typically begins in May and continues through October. But as hundreds of fires, some quite large and uncontained, burned across Canada, a number of federal officers acknowledged that it is unusual to see such severe and expansive damage already happening at this time of year.

Millions of Americans were placed under air quality health advisories as smog continued to filter south from Canada — owing to a rotating low-pressure weather system that would not budge over the far-east province of Nova Scotia — with the government air quality database AirNow showing particulate matter was unhealthy in airspaces from Albany to Richmond and deep into Pennsylvania on Thursday. The database indicated air quality was unhealthy for sensitive groups as far west as Louisville and Chicago, and, along pockets of the eastern seaboard, including metropolitan Washington, D.C., air pollution had risen to levels considered "very unhealthy."

In Washington, D.C., smoke pollution spiked to levels considered "extremely unhealthy" on Thursday.  CBS News

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recommends that everyone living in an area where air quality is considered unhealthy as a result of particle pollution should limit prolonged or heavy exertion outdoors, while children, older adults and people with heart or lung disease should avoid it altogether. 

When air quality reaches "very unhealthy" levels, the agency cautions that children, older adults, and people with heart or lung disease should "avoid all physical activity outdoors," while everyone else should limit their time outside. The agency recommends, for example, going for a walk instead of a jog and avoiding exercise "near busy roads" — where particle pollution is generally more concentrated — when air quality is considered unhealthy.

"Your chances of being affected by particles increase the more strenuous your activity and the longer you are active outdoors. If your activity involves prolonged or heavy exertion, reduce your activity time — or substitute another that involves less exertion," the EPA says. 

It notes that even short-term exposure to particle pollution, over a period of hours or days, can cause asthma attacks, acute bronchitis, and potentially increase susceptibility to respiratory infections for people with lung disease and cause heart attacks and arrhythmias in those with heart disease. Although short-term exposure typically does not have serious health effects on otherwise healthy children and adults, "they may experience temporary irritation" when levels are elevated. 

Studies have linked increased particle exposure, both short-term and long-term, to spiking hospital admissions, emergency room visits and death from heart or lung diseases, according to the agency.

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