‘Dickensian skyline’ means you should stay inside

— From AirNow.gov

Altamont on Wednesday evening had an air quality index reading of “unhealthy” 159, indicated in red.

ALBANY COUNTY — Speaking from the University at Albany on Wednesday evening, Governor Kathy Hochul said the poor air quality throughout most of the state caused by wildfires in Quebec was “unprecedented.”

While the normal air-quality index number is 50, parts of the state, such as Brooklyn and Queens, have readings over 400, she said.

“Stay indoors … literally everyone,” advised Hochul.

On Monday, when the state first issued advisories, for places including Albany County, an index number over 100 meant vulnerable groups such as babies and the elderly or those with asthma or heart problems, were advised to stay indoors.

Now, everyone is being advised to stay inside and, depending on personal preference — Hochul stressed that there is no mask mandate — encouraged to wear a mask both indoors and out.

One million N95 masks will be made available on Thursday morning at state facilities with 400,000 for New Yorkers at MTA stations, bus terminals, state parks, and the Javits Center.

Another 600,000 N95 masks will be available from Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Services stockpiles for municipalities to pick up.

“We’re trying to help our neighbors in Canada,” said Hochul, stating that the number of wildfires burning this year was up 14,000 percent from the norm. Currently, she said, over 285 fires are burning with 175 of them out of control.

According to NASA’s Earth Observatory, fire season in Quebec usually starts in late May. In an average year, a square mile would be burned by June 5, according to Quebec’s fire prevention agency. But so far this year, 600 square miles have burned.

The fire prevention agency, Société de protection des forêts contre le feu, says the fierce start to the season has in part been due to high temperatures and dry conditions in the province.

Hochul said that New York state, particularly the central and western regions, is “incredibly dry” and urged residents to be careful having barbecues or fires in their yards.

She mentioned last year’s wildfires in the Catskills as well as recent hurricanes and the whopping winter snowstorm in western New York, noting an era of “extreme weather.”

Northerly winds are bringing the smoke from Canada, Hochul said, predicting, “Buffalo and western New York will be in trouble tomorrow.”

While the unhealthy air quality could possibly abate over the weekend, Hochul advised residents to “track the information” and to “stay at home” without undertaking “strenuous activities.”

AirNow, working with the Environmental Protection Agency, has a website where you can type in your ZIP code to get a current reading on the air quality; it also displays maps rating the air quality in a color-coded format. This is the online address: AirNow.gov.

The EPA also has detailed instructions, in nine different languages, for maintaining indoor air quality in the midst of wildfires.

“The biggest health threat from smoke is from fine particles,” the EPA site says. “These microscopic particles can get into your eyes and respiratory system – whether you are outdoors or indoors, where they can cause health problems such as burning eyes, runny nose, and illnesses such as bronchitis.

“Fine particles also can aggravate chronic heart and lung diseases — and even are linked to premature deaths in people with these conditions. “

Among the EPA advice is how to set up a “clean room” in your home, which has tightly closed windows, no cooking or vacuuming or activities with fumes, and an air purifier.

“It’s a very dangerous situation ...,” said Hochul. “Please don’t go out if you don’t have to.”

Hochul had recommended on Wednesday that schools cancel outdoor activities. On Thursday, the Guilderland school district said it was following that advice.

“All classes, including physical education and recess will be held indoors,” the district said on Thursday, June 8, on its website and in an email sent to families. “We will continue to monitor the air quality conditions as the day progresses.”

Also on Thursday, June 8, the New York State Gaming Commission directed all tracks to stop all racing, training, and workouts until further notice.

“As with humans, particulates in the atmosphere can build up in horse respiratory systems causing serious health problems, including eye and respiratory tract irritation,” the commission said in a release.

The gaming commission announced it has set standards such that, if the air quality index number at a facility exceeds 200, no racing or training is to be conducted; if the AQI is between 150 and 200, “only those horses that pass an additional pre-race respiratory veterinary examination will be permitted to race.”

During the Wednesday evening press conference, Jackie Bray, commissioner for the Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Services, stood behind the governor along with Basil Seggos, commissioner for the Department of Environmental Conservation, and the acting health commissioner, James McDonald.

Bray said that the state’s transportation department is monitoring both air quality and visibility and had pulled some work crews off the job where conditions were worst, in the Rochester and Syracuse areas. Wednesday night, she said, the worst would be moving to the New York City area.

The state’s labor department on Wednesday encouraged employers located in regions with air quality health advisories in effect to limit outdoor work and activities that require exertion.

“Industries with workers who may be especially susceptible to the impacts of the Canadian wildfire smoke exposure include farming and agriculture, construction, landscaping, highway maintenance, and other fields that require outdoor heavy-exertion labor,” the announcement said.

Workers who are sick or become sick as a result of smoke exposure, the department said, can inform their employers and use any Paid Sick Leave accruals available.

McDonald and Seggos had held a virtual press conference at 2 p.m. on Wednesday in which Seggos spoke of the “Dickensian skyline” and said the air quality was “certainly the worst in memory” — worse than the earlier comparisons that had been made to 2002, when there were also Canadian wildfires with particles carried north on the wind.

McDonald called the conditions in central New York “hazardous” and urged mask-wearing.

Long-term exposure to the particulate matter, he said, could exacerbate asthma; he urged asthma patients to refill their rescue inhalers.

He also said that those suffering from COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) could find it hard to breathe and those with underlying heart disease could suffer.

The air quality index, McDonald explained, monitors five factors: ozone, particulate matter, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, and nitrogen dioxide.

Particulate matter, he said, is made up of particles smaller than 2.5 microns, noting, for comparison, that human hair has a diameter of about 50 microns.

“You can’t see it with your naked eye,” said McDonald, explaining that the invisible particles “can migrate down your respiratory tract.”

He advised wearing an N95 mask if the air quality index number is over 300. The mask, he said, filters the air you breathe, keeping particles out of your lungs.

Even a surgical mask will provide some protection, McDonald said, if you don’t have access to an N95 mask. “Use what’s the best mask you have available,” he urged.

McDonald said that his department monitors use of medical services statewide and has not seen an uptick in emergency-room admissions for breathing problems but he also said, “It may take a little bit to cause a problem.”

Asked how soon the particulate matter would dissipate, Seggos said that would depend on if the fires are stopped and on how the winds blow.

“We’ll pray for rain up north,” he said, “and pray for the wind to shift.”

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