SCIENCE BEHIND THE NEWS: Wildfire smoke from Canada is enveloping the Northeastern U.S. and drenching it in particulate matter.

A dense smog, resulting from massive wildfires in western Canada, is currently enveloping the northeastern U.S., tainting the air and transforming the sky into a grim, grayish-yellow hue. The severe air pollution, reaching as far as New York City and New England, is compromising visibility and causing respiratory discomfort.

Smoke from the widespread Canadian fires, stretching from the western provinces to Quebec, has resulted in air quality alerts across the United States. The thick smoky fog was felt across the Great Lakes region, impacting cities from Cleveland to Buffalo. The smog intensified over New York City on Tuesday, casting a reddish glow over the setting sun and impairing views across the Hudson River towards New Jersey. The evening sky over Philadelphia exhibited a lavender tinge.

Brooklyn residents Sal and Lilly Murphy likened the pervasive smoky odor to that of a campfire, detectable even within a Manhattan restaurant. Upon exiting the building, they were greeted by a storm-like sky, devoid of rain. The experience has alarmed many citizens, with the smoke’s presence becoming increasingly noticeable in recent weeks.

This true-color image of the eastern half of the North American continent was, was captured on the morning of June 7, 2023, at 12:06 UTC, by the Advanced Baseline Imager (ABI) instrument flying aboard the GOES-16 satellite. In this image, smoke from the Central Canada wildfires was visible over the Eastern U.S. and Canada. (CREDIT: NOAA.)

New York City Mayor Eric Adams and New York Gov. Kathy Hochul urged residents to minimize outdoor activities due to the murky skies.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency forecasts hazy skies, reduced visibility, and a persistent smoky odor, caused by the Canadian wildfires that have been smoldering since last month. These fires are typical for the area, according to Darren Austin, a senior air quality specialist with the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management. However, the smoke usually remains aloft and doesn’t generally affect health.

Smoke from the Quebec wildfires, approximately 500 to 600 miles away from Rhode Island, has been noticeably different. Following fires in Nova Scotia, an air quality alert was issued briefly on May 30.

Meteorologists predict that current wind patterns could maintain these smoky conditions over New York City for several days. Still, fire containment remains the key determinant of future haze intensity.

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The principal concern surrounding these conditions is the presence of fine-particle pollution which can provoke lung irritation. This type of pollutant can bypass the body’s natural defenses and prompt inflammatory reactions in the respiratory system, warns Dr. David Hill, a member of the American Lung Association’s National Board of Directors.

Fine-particle pollution, also known as Particulate Matter 2.5 (PM2.5), is a type of air pollution that consists of tiny particles and liquid droplets measuring 2.5 micrometers or smaller in diameter. These particles are incredibly small — about 3% the diameter of a human hair — and thus, are invisible to the naked eye.

The particles are generated by various sources, both natural and anthropogenic. They can come from combustion processes, such as vehicle emissions, industrial processes, power plants, residential wood burning, and wildfires. Natural sources include volcanoes and dust storms.

The small size of PM2.5 particles allows them to stay suspended in the air for long periods, and when inhaled, they can bypass the body’s natural defenses, penetrating deep into the lungs and even entering the bloodstream. This can lead to a wide range of health issues, such as asthma, lung cancer, cardiovascular disease, respiratory infections, and premature death.

PM2.5 also contributes to the formation of haze and reduces visibility. It affects not only human health but also the environment, influencing the climate by interacting with sunlight and impacting cloud formation.

The alerts primarily target “sensitive groups,” including children, the elderly, and individuals with lung diseases like asthma and COPD. Young children are particularly susceptible as their lungs are still developing, and they inhale more air relative to their body weight, says Laura Kate Bender, of the Lung Association.

Officials recommend delaying outdoor activities, wearing an N95 mask when venturing outdoors, and staying indoors as much as possible. Keep doors, windows, and fireplaces closed, and use the air conditioning on a recirculating setting. For those with underlying lung or heart disease, investing in a home air purifier is advisable.


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