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Canada wildfires make NYC's air quality worst since 1960s, officials say; Games postponed, parks and libraries impacted

New Yorkers warned to avoid the outdoors due to poor air quality
New Yorkers warned to avoid the outdoors due to poor air quality 02:54

NEW YORK -- The air quality in New York City is the worst it has been in more than 50 years. 

The entire Tri-State Area is under an Air Quality Alert until at least midnight Thursday, and it could be extended. 

It's caused by hundreds of wildfires burning in Canada. Those fires are so intense they can be seen from space

A timelapse of the skyline show how much worse it got throughout the day. The skies turned a burned orange Wednesday afternoon, blocking out nearly everything in sight. 

There are health concerns to be aware of. Doctors say you should close any windows, limit time outdoors, and if you have to go outside, you may want to wear a mask. 

As the air quality got worse by the hour Wednesday, people were pulling out face masks they may have set aside since the pandemic. 

At the promenade in Brooklyn Heights, the Manhattan skyline was barely visible. Smoke from wildfires in Canada continued to infiltrate city air at historic levels. 

The air quality index over the city hit 484 Wednesday afternoon, approximately eight times the normal level.

"This is an unprecedented event in our city, and New Yorkers must take precautions," Mayor Eric Adams  said. "At the moment, we recommend vulnerable New Yorkers stay inside, and all New Yorkers should limit outdoor activity to the greatest extent possible. This is not the day to train for a marathon or to do an outside event with your children." 

"It's sort of normal to hit 100. What's not normal is to go above 150," said Office of Emergency Management Commissioner Zachary Iscol. 

Mayor Adams provides 6 p.m. Wednesday update on air quality in NYC 18:48

Adams described his reaction when he first encountered the smoke condition Tuesday. He said he was working indoors when the city began messaging people about the rapidly deteriorating conditions.  

"It wasn't until I went outdoors and basically said 'What the hell is this?' You know? It was clear that there was something different that was happening in the city," Adams said. "Anyone who was outdoors yesterday, you clearly saw that there was something that was happening in the city that was different, and it was sort of alarming to see." 

Wearing a high-quality mask, such as a KN95, is being strongly recommended if you must be outside for long periods of time. If you have the option, work from home, as officials say right now it's hard to predict just how long the air quality issue will last. 

"The latest smoke models show further deterioration in the early afternoon through tomorrow morning," Iscol said.

Hochul emphasizes need for New Yorkers to stay home due to air quality 00:52

Gov. Kathy Hochul emphasized the need for everyone to stay indoors.

"Our message right now is going to be reiterated multiple times because it is simply stay indoors. Outdoors is dangerous in just about every part of our state. Not just vulnerable communities, but literally everyone. We're normally constantly talking about children, babies, people with compromised immune systems, but this is something that's having an effect on everyone. So we're recommending that people cancel their outdoor activities ... and just plan your exercise even around this," she said.

The governor also says they're distributing 1 million high-quality N95-style masks -- 600,000 across the state and 400,000 in New York City. They will be available at the following locations:

  • Grand Central Terminal
  • Penn Station
  • Fulton Center
  • Jamaica Station
  • Main Concourse of the Port Authority Bus Terminal, South Wing
  • Danny Farrell Riverbank State Park, Harlem
  • Roberto Clemente State Park, the Bronx

Smoke causes closures, delays, and service changes

To encourage people to stay indoors, all outdoor city-sponsored events are canceled through Thursday, and the mayor hopes private events will follow suit.

A ground stop had been issued at Newark Liberty International Airport and LaGuardia Airports. They were subsequently lifted, but delays lingered, including some at John F. Kennedy International Airport. 

All public schools canceled outdoor activities, though classes continued.  

Yankees game postponed due to poor air quality 01:47

The Yankees home game against the White Sox was postponed. Fans were being turned away at the gates as they showed up for the game. It was scheduled for 7:05 p.m. but will be played Thursday. The New York Liberty game was also postponed. 

Alternate side parking is suspended Thursday due to air quality.     

Con Edison said only essential work was being done in the haze, meaning gas leaks and other emergencies only. Routine street work has been suspended until the smoke lifts.  

All recreational activities at New York City Parks were canceled due to the smoke. New York Public Libraries closed early, at 3:30 p.m., due to the smoke.

The Wildlife Conservation Society closed several parks early to protect staff, visitors and animals. Zoos in the Bronx, Central Park, Queens and Prospect Park, as well as the New York Aquarium, closed at 3 p.m. and animals were brought in early.

Wednesday's matinee of the Broadway play "Prima Facie" was halted about 10 minutes into the performance because Tony-nominated actor Jodie Comer had difficulty breathing due to the smoky conditions. The performance restarted with understudy Dani Arlington in the leading role.

The Broadway musicals "Hamilton" and "Camelot" both canceled their Wednesday night performances. In a tweet, representatives for Hamilton said in part, "The hazardous air quality in New York City has made it impossible for a number of our artists to perform this evening."

The Public Theater canceled Thursday and Friday's performances of their free, outdoor production of "Hamlet."

When things may improve

"Air quality conditions are anticipated to temporarily improve later tonight through tomorrow morning, but they are expected to deteriorate further tomorrow afternoon and evening," Adams said. "While this may be the first time we've experienced something like this on this magnitude, let's be clear: It's not the last. Climate change has accelerated these conditions and we must continue to draw down emissions, improve air quality and build resiliency." 

"The air quality significantly diminished, rapidly deteriorated late yesterday," Iscol said. "We expect this to be a multiple day event, so we expect that that advisory will remain in place the next few days." 

City officials expect the smoke to remain in our air overnight and into Thursday. 

Health impacts of smoke from Canadian wildfires

Dr. Michael Niederman on air quality health risks 08:01

Manhattan Borough President Mark Levine handed out masks in Chinatown. Doctors like pulmonologist Michael Niederman of New York-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center warn that the small smoke particles in our air are uniquely dangerous. 

"The small particles are in many ways more dangerous. The smaller particles are the ones that can reach deeper in the lungs," Niederman said. "The small particulate matter, some of the trapped gases, can be irritating to the lung, they can potentially be injurious. In the short term, they can cause bronchial spasms."

People with respiratory problems are urged to stay indoors. Potential symptoms of health trouble include shortness of breath or pressure in the lungs. The populations most at risk are the elderly or young children. 

New York City canceled all outdoor activities at city schools. 

"Our health guidance to all New Yorkers is to limit outdoor activity as much as possible," New York City Health Commissioner Dr. Ashwin Vasan said. "The fine particulate matter in the air can get into people's lungs, cause inflammation, and worsen conditions like asthma, chronic lung disease, or underlying heart conditions."

Protecting yourself in your home and outside

In your home, there are ways to make sure your air conditioner isn't circulating hazardous air from outside. 

"If you have an AC unit though, you want to make sure it's re-circulating air that's in your home and that it's not bringing in new air from the outside. So hit that button to make sure you're not making conditions inside your house worse," said Tanya Christian of Consumer Reports. "A lot of people with an AC unit may have a little gapping between the AC unit and outside. Make sure all of that is sealed up." 

Doctors say the general public should be fine, but remain alert and keep windows closed.   

Authorities said thus far there has been no noticeable uptick in emergency room visits in New York City as a result of the poor air quality. 

N.Y. Department of Health officials on Canada wildfire smoke 22:59

Tourists in parts of New York City had a hard time seeing the sites, and some residents with ailments like asthma are reporting difficulty breathing. 

Earlier in the day, people could be spotted walking and on their bikes when the smoke levels weren't as bad. Around 2 p.m., everything changed. The majority of the people seen on the promenade in Brooklyn Heights were wearing masks and taking photos of the poor visibility. 

Health officials urge children and adults who exercise to reduce prolonged or heavy exertion outdoors. 

Intensity of fire season in Canada

Iscol said that fire season in Canada, which has 9% of the world's forests, has started early this year. 

"The intensity, as well as the number of fires, is far higher than usual. Usually it peaks in July, so this is something that we can continue to see possibly over the next few months," Iscol said. 

The Canadian government released remarkable video of some of the wildfires, showing the cause of all this trouble. 

The problem doesn't just impact New York City, and includes most areas in the Northeast including New Jersey. Gov. Phil Murphy declared an "air quality action day," which strongly advises residents to stay indoors.   

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