New Yorkers should wear masks outside in smoky air, health dept says
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New Yorkers should wear masks outside in smoky air, health dept says

Nov 24, 2023

As smoky haze from Canada's wildfires continues to blanket much of New York on Wednesday, New York officials recommended face masks for people who must go outside and are exposed to unhealthy air quality levels.

The state Department of Environmental Conservation issued air quality advisories for most of New York, including the five boroughs, due to smoke from wildfires in Canada for several days that have left New York's skies hued orange and red. State officials have warned residents about breathing in fine particulate matter, or PM 2.5, derived from the fires that can be hazardous.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency rated air quality for much of the state as "Unhealthy," including the New York City metropolitan area. Around 10 p.m. Tuesday, air quality in the five boroughs reached "Very Unhealthy" under the EPA thresholds.

Officials have recommended staying indoors and limiting outdoor activity.

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"For people who must be outdoors, a high-quality mask, like an N95, KN95 or KF94, is recommended," Dr. Ashwin Vasan, commissioner of the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, told reporters Wednesday morning.

On Wednesday afternoon, Dr. James McDonald, commissioner of the New York State Department of Health, told reporters he spoke with Vasan about the decision, adding it made a lot of sense.

Given the jumps in air quality indices across the state, particularly levels above 300 that the EPA considers "Hazardous," people should wear masks, McDonald said.

"If you have to go outside, a mask is a way to protect you," he said. "Keep in mind, what a mask does is it filters the air you breathe."

In doing so, particles don't get into one's respiratory system because the mask filters air inhaled. McDonald recommended people use their best available mask, including surgical masks.

Exposure to PM 2.5 can cause short-term effects like irritation to eyes, nose and throat, resulting in coughing, sneezing, runny nose and shortness of breath, DEC's advisory said. Elevated levels of PM 2.5 can also worsen medical conditions for people with asthma or heart disease. Children and elderly people may be particularly sensitive.

In an email, Steven Chillrud, a research professor at Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, agreed with the city recommendations.

"The benefits are a good fitting K95 or N95 mask can remove the majority of the particulate matter, which is what is causing the haze," he wrote. "The fit is the most important, so even wearing a surgical mask that fits you well can help, but a K95 or N95 mask can work better."

On Wednesday evening, Gov. Kathy Hochul announced the state would distribute 1 million N95 masks, including 400,000 face masks at state-owned facilities in the New York City area. Masks would be available at Metropolitan Transit Authority sites such as Grand Central Terminal and Penn Station, as well as state parks in Manhattan and the Bronx.

Canada wildfires:Air quality warnings issued across much of New York for Canada fires. It'll likely persist

On Tuesday night, New York City issued guidance for older people or those with heart and breathing problems who need to be outside to wear high-quality face masks. City public schools also canceled all outdoor activities on Wednesday.

"This may be something the first time we’ve experienced on this magnitude, let's be clear, it's not the last," Adams said Wednesday. "Climate change is accelerating these conditions."

State officials have indicated poor air quality is likely to persist in the coming days. City Emergency Management Commissioner Zachary Iscol said officials expect it to be a multi-day event.

What questions do you have about how the wildfire smoke is affecting air quality in New York?

Are you worried about loved ones with breathing problems? Should you cancel outdoor events this week or weekend?

We’d love to hear your questions, and help answer them with our coverage. Fill out the form below and your submission will go straight to a USA Today Network reporter. We may reach out to you for more information about your question.

Canada wildfires: