Much of the Northeastern and mid-Atlantic United States has been blanketed in smoke from Canadian wildfires this week, leading to historically bad air quality in major cities like New York and Philadelphia. Canada is on track to have a record year for wildfires, with more than 400 fires—240 of them “out of control”—burning Wednesday, and airflow patterns are funneling the smoke southward.
People in New York City, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., and areas between were pulling out their N95 masks to cope with the smoke, as people on the West Coast were sharing advice about how to respond by staying indoors with windows closed, upgrading filtration on HVAC systems if possible, and getting air purifiers or building Corsi-Rosenthal boxes. These are responses people on the West Coast know too well, and this week people on the East Coast are learning that, due to climate change, it might be relevant in their region going forward, too.
“While these events have been really rare historically, I think all evidence suggests they’ll become less rare in the future as the climate warms,” Marshall Burke, an associate professor in the Department of Earth System Science at Stanford University, told The Washington Post. “So this is something we need to learn to prepare for.”
Republicans rushed to Fox News to dismiss that reality. “This isn’t the moment to start lecturing people about the science of climate change,” Rep. Marc Molinaro said on “Fox & Friends.” “Right now it’s about putting out a fire and keeping people safe.” It’s like mass shootings: Republicans say we’re not allowed to talk about the underlying causes right after a mass shooting, so it’s always the wrong time. In a world with increasing wildfires, we can’t wait until Republicans say it’s an appropriate time.
Steve Milloy, a guest on Laura Ingraham’s Fox News show identified as a former Trump EPA transition team member, insisted that the “reality is, there’s just no health risk,” claiming this was backed up by EPA research. “We have this kind of air in India and China all the time, no public health emergency,” Milloy said. A 2020 study in The Lancet estimated 1.24 million deaths in China due to air pollution in 2017. Another Lancet study found more than 1.6 million deaths due to air pollution in India in 2019. Milloy also scoffed at the idea that climate change could affect wildfires in a rant that could go straight into a satire of climate denial.
“This doesn’t kill anybody, this doesn’t make anybody cough, this is not a health event,” he said. “This has got nothing to do with climate. First of all, this is wildfire smoke, this is natural. This is not because of climate change. This is not because of fossil fuel, you know, internal combustion engines.” At one point, Ingraham broke in, laughing, “It’s amazing!”
On Wednesday, Philadelphia’s air quality measured up to 447 on a scale on which 300 is considered “hazardous.” On measurements of particles 2.5 microns in diameter or smaller, New York City had an average level of 377 micrograms per cubic meter of air, nearly 11 times the 35 micrograms considered safe.
”Particulate matter contains microscopic solids or liquid droplets that are so small that they can be inhaled and cause serious health problems,” according to the EPA. “Some particles less than 10 micrometers in diameter can get deep into your lungs and some may even get into your bloodstream. Of these, particles less than 2.5 micrometers in diameter, also known as fine particles or PM2.5, pose the greatest risk to health.”
The levels of smoke pollution produced startling images:
Wednesday night, following a conversation with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, President Joe Biden said his administration would deploy “all available federal firefighting assets” to assist in the response.
(Click this link for a mesmerizing map of the flow of the smoke.)