Flight delays and health warnings: U.S. air quality deteriorates sharply as wildfires rage in Canada

Schools on the U.S. East Coast canceled outdoor events, flights were ground to a halt and millions of Americans were forced to stay at home on Wednesday as smoke from wildfires in Canada swept south, shrouding cities in a thick yellowish haze.
The US National Weather Service has issued air quality warnings for virtually the entire Atlantic coast. Health officials in states from Vermont to South Carolina and as far west as Ohio and Kansas have warned residents that being outdoors can cause health problems due to the amount of fine particles in the atmosphere.

“It’s critical that Americans facing dangerous air pollution, especially those with health concerns, listen to local authorities to protect themselves and their families,” President Joe Biden said on Twitter.

U.S. private forecasting service AccuWeather said thick haze and soot extending from high altitudes to ground level was the worst wildfire smoke outbreak to engulf the northeastern United States in more than 20 years.

The world-famous New York skyline, usually visible for miles away, seemed to vanish under an otherworldly veil of smoke that some residents said made them sick.

“I can not breathe. It makes breathing difficult,” said Mohammed Abass, walking down Broadway in Manhattan.
“I had a scheduled driving test for my driver’s license today and it was cancelled.”
Reduced visibility due to haze forced the Federal Aviation Administration to slow air traffic in the New York and Philadelphia area from elsewhere on the East Coast and the upper Midwest, with flight delays averaging about half an hour.

Schools along and across the East Coast have canceled outdoor activities, including sports practice, field trips and recess, to protect students.

Broadway’s “Prima Facie” matinee was shut down after 10 minutes when actress Jodie Comer found it difficult to breathe due to poor air quality.

The show has been renewed with stunt double Dani Arlington performing for Comer as Tessa, a production spokesperson said in a statement.

Smoke over Batemans Bay during the 2020 wildfire season.

A curtain of smoke similar to the one that swept New York was seen in 2020 in Australia during the wildfire season. Source: ABACUS / ABACA/PA/Alami

This even affected Major League Baseball as the New York Yankees and Philadelphia Phillies postponed home games scheduled for Wednesday.

A Women’s National Football League game in Harrison, New Jersey was also rescheduled, as was a WNBA women’s basketball game in Brooklyn.
In some areas, the air quality index (AQI), which measures key pollutants including particulate matter from fires, was well over 400, according to Airnow, which defines 100 as “unhealthy” and 300 as “dangerous.”
At noon, Bethlehem, Pennsylvania experienced the worst air quality in the nation, with an AQI of 410.

Among major cities, New York had the worst air quality score in the world Wednesday afternoon at 342, according to IQAir, about double that of chronically polluted cities like Dubai (168) and Delhi (164).

Where did the smoke come from?

Smoke has risen over the US border from Canada, where hundreds of wildfires have scorched 3.8 million hectares and forced 120,000 people from their homes in an unusually early and intense start to wildfire season.
On Wednesday, the skies over New York and many other cities in North America became increasingly hazy, and an eerie yellowish tint seeped through the smoky dome. The air smelled of burning wood.

Wildfire smoke has been linked to higher rates of heart attacks and strokes, increased emergency room visits for asthma and other respiratory conditions, eye irritation, itchy skin and rashes, among other problems.

View of palm trees with smoke in the background at Batemans Bay.

Batemans Bay, on the south coast of New South Wales, was one of the cities hit by the 2020 Australian bushfires. Source: AARP / ABACA/PA/Alami

Citizens struggle with poor air quality

The Home Depot store in Manhattan has run out of air purifiers and masks. The New York Road Runners have canceled their World Running Day events.
“This is not the day to train for a marathon or have outdoor activities with the kids,” said New York City Mayor Eric Adams. “If you are older, have heart or breathing problems, or are an older person, you should stay inside.”
Pedestrians donned face masks in numbers that recalled the worst days of the coronavirus pandemic.
Tyrone Sylvester, 66, who plays chess in Manhattan’s Union Square as he has done most days for 30 years, but wearing a mask, said he has never seen such poor air quality in the city.
“When the sun looks like this,” he said, pointing to a bronze ball visible through a smoky sky, “we know something is wrong. This is what global warming looks like.

Poor air quality is likely to continue into the weekend as a developing storm system is expected to shift smoke west across the Great Lakes and deeper south through the Ohio Valley into the mid-Atlantic region, AccuWeather reported.