Impact of Canadian wildfires on NYC: What is in the air? Do masks offer protection?
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Impact of Canadian wildfires on NYC: What is in the air? Do masks offer protection?

Dec 07, 2023

Smoke from Canadian wildfires casts a haze over the Statue of Liberty and the New York City skyline on the New York Harbor on Wednesday morning, June 7, 2023, as seen from Bayonne, N.J. (Reena Rose Sibayan | The Jersey Journal)

STATEN ISLAND, N.Y. — Medical experts are urging Staten Island residents to stay inside Wednesday to avoid inhalation of smoke heading down from Canada's wildfires — and not to count on routine paper surgical masks to do the job for them.

"The best option for most people is to be inside with windows closed as much as possible,’’ said Dr. Nima Majlesi, director of medical toxicology at Staten Island University Hospital. "I think people should be concerned for sure. But panic certainly isn't necessary."

Those with underlying health conditions, including asthma, COPD and other lung diseases, should be particularly cautious, said Majlesi.

Dr. Keith Diaz, chief of the Division of Pulmonary Medicine at Richmond University Medical Center (RUMC), said he agrees.

Both doctors also stressed that outdoor exercise should be avoided by everyone on Wednesday.


A rash of wildfires throughout Canada continues to bring deteriorated environmental conditions down to New York City with the wind, prompting the state of New York and the National Weather Service (NWS) to issue Air Quality Health Alerts for the area on Wednesday.

The advisory extends until 11:59 p.m. Wednesday, citing "fine particulate matter" as a reason for caution. Also included in the advisory are Long Island, Eastern Lake Ontario and central and western New York.

The NWS advised New Yorkers and residents of neighboring New Jersey to limit time outside on Wednesday and even suggested wearing a mask to limit respiratory system irritation.


Mask-wearing may be helpful, only if residents have access to N95 surgical masks, Diaz said.

"The routine surgical masks that many people were wearing (during the COVID-19 pandemic) will not do anything,’’ Diaz said, noting that they do not fit tightly around the face. "The particles will work around any of the gaps. If they don't’ fit snugly, when you breathe in, you create a negative vacuum, and the small particles will circle around the mask.’’

Diaz said N95 masks fit better, and, as the name accurately suggests, they filter out 95% of very small particles. Routine paper surgical masks, however, are designed to allow the wearer to protect those around them, he said.

"Inhalation of smoke in general is obviously not a good thing,’’ said Majlesi, who is also an attending physician in the Emergency Department at SIUH. "If you have to go out, go out, but limit the time. For now, the best bet is to limit your exposure."

Those with an indoor HEPA filter should use it, Diaz said.

Though New York City public schools remain open on Wednesday, students are not participating in any outdoor activities due to the recent air quality alerts, according to the city Department of Education (DOE). Some kids and staff could be seen heading to class Wednesday wearing face coverings.

"We just got out of COVID, and now going to this. It's crazy," said Aida Liu, a grandparent of a student at PS 22 in Graniteville, as both wore a face covering. "Yesterday, during pickup I noticed it [the haze], but today it's not as bad."


Residents experiencing shortness of breath, excessive coughing, lightheadedness, or chest pain should seek medical attention, the doctors said.

Coughing will vary by the amount of particles a person breathes in, Diaz said. "They’re foreign bodies, and when they enter the lungs they (the lungs) recognize them as invaders. That triggers coughing."


Fine particulate matter consists of tiny solid particles or liquid droplets in the air that are 2.5 microns or less in diameter (PM 2.5). It often comes from processes that involve combustion and can cause short-term health effects, such as irritation to the eyes, nose and throat, coughing, sneezing, runny nose and shortness of breath, health alerts said.

Exposure to elevated levels of fine particulate matter can also worsen medical conditions such as asthma and heart disease, the state weather and health alerts said, echoing the doctors’ warning that people with heart or breathing problems, children and the elderly may be particularly sensitive the situation.

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