As all of us are learning quickly, the world is a small place when it comes to the devastating effects of climate change. The eerie, post-apocalyptic orange smoke that engulfed New York City as a result of wildfires raging in Canada last week is the latest sign we need to be better prepared for the climate crisis already underway.
Globally we are seeing longer and longer wildfire seasons — a result of rising temperatures and decreased precipitation. With climate change, wildfire frequencies are projected to continue rising, suggesting that New York City is likely to experience similar air quality events in greater numbers in future years.
This could have critical public health impacts. The city’s public hospital system saw an uptick in patients with respiratory symptoms in some of its emergency departments last week, with lower-income Black and Hispanic communities experiencing a disproportionate share of asthma-related emergencies.
Short-term exposure to wildfire smoke pollutants like particulate matter can cause immediate issues including premature death, bronchitis, asthma attacks, and other heart or breathing issues. Long-term exposure can result in reduced lung function and premature death, particularly in people with pre-existing conditions. Seniors, children, and residents of environmental justice neighborhoods that are historically underserved are also particularly at risk.
While last week’s smoke-filled skies seemed to catch our city off guard, we can and must be prepared to take swift action in the face of air quality threats to safeguard the health and welfare of all New Yorkers — especially our most vulnerable residents. Cities and regions across the world have been dealing with poor air quality for years now, and New York City can learn from their lessons to prevent additional air pollution, reduce New Yorkers’ exposure to harmful air pollutants, and advance outreach, education, and preparedness.
To begin with, during poor air quality days like the ones we just experienced, New York City should limit the emissions of additional air pollution from sources within the city. This could include reducing vehicular traffic, which generates over a tenth of the fine particulate pollution in the air in New York City every year. Mexico City and Delhi have taken similar measures, reducing the number of cars traversing their roads during bad air days through license plate and vehicle restrictions. To both help minimize additional air pollution sources and protect outdoor workers, the city could also pause construction of non-critical public projects, as Delhi does, or garbage collection, as Philadelphia did last week.
Second, the city should proactively take measures to reduce New Yorkers’ exposure to harmful air pollutants. This includes handing out appropriate masks, a strategy the city now has years of experience effectively doing, along with distributing guidance on appropriate mask use. The city should also establish Clean Air Centers in public facilities with effective air filtration systems – similar to its existing cooling centers that provide temperature relief on sweltering days – to provide New Yorkers with safe havens during periods of poor air quality. Across the west coast, cities like San Francisco and Seattle have rolled out these centers to protect residents during wildfire season.
To further reduce exposure, City Hall should make sure our most vulnerable residents are taken care of by removing barriers to shelter and conducting direct outreach to New Yorkers experiencing homelessness, as it does during extreme heat and freezing cold events. Offering remote work options to eligible public employees and remote school options to students are simple but crucial steps the city could take to limit exposure to outdoor pollution and set an example for private businesses.
One final essential element to a robust air quality strategy is providing clear and up-to-date communications to all residents on the best practices to adopt during poor air quality days and how to be prepared. Although the city released an advisory alert in advance of the poor air quality, only New Yorkers who had signed up for city communications like NotifyNYC were notified. In future events, the city should be more proactive in utilizing tools like LinkNYC announcements sooner or sending out wireless emergency alert messages to New York City-area mobile devices – similar to AMBER alerts – with guidance on seeking shelter and protecting themselves.
This also includes ensuring the preparedness of outdoor employers and workers through comprehensive safety guidelines and specific measures and protocols to be followed during poor air quality events. Improving the public’s preparedness for these events by incorporating air quality into the city’s existing emergency management training programs and disseminating up-to-date guidance to leaders in community groups and faith-based organizations could further bolster the city’s response to poor air quality events.
It is time for New York City to establish new policies to protect New Yorkers from poor air quality. With a warming climate and increasing climate threats — we must act now to prepare our city and all New Yorkers.
Grace Rauh is the Executive Director of the 5BORO Institute, a nonpartisan public policy think tank advancing creative solutions to NYC’s most challenging problems. Read 5BORO’s air quality recommendations for NYC government here. On Twitter @GraceRauh & @5BoroInstitute.