As wildfire smoke clears, scientists warn air quality impacts aren’t over

By Shannon Kelleher

On Tuesday morning, Austin Channell was starting his day at home in Hudson, New York when he discovered the rays of sunlight on his wall were an odd orangey pink. As the day progressed, the sky grew stranger.

“By the afternoon we couldn’t see the sun at all,” said Channell, who works as the events director for an aviation museum.

The rest of the week, Channell described feeling a sense of helplessness as smoke from Canadian wildfires enveloped the northeastern US, bringing hazardously high air pollution levels to millions of people. On Wednesday, New York City’s air quality index (AQI) reached a staggering 460 – the highest level of air pollution recorded in the city since measurements began in 1999 and more than an order of magnitude higher than the safe daily average of 35 set by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Dangerous air pollution levels were also detected in Philadelphia and Washington, DC.

Channell mostly stayed indoors, making coffee and sending emails under an Armageddon orange sky, his air purifier running nonstop. When he tried to go for a walk, he quickly found it hard to breathe.

As the smoke blotted out the sun in Brooklyn, Jes Lyons, a publicist who suffers from asthma, decided to wear a mask even while in her apartment. She feared her drafty apartment windows would not provide sufficient protection from the toxins wafting through the air.