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Climate

Wildfire Smoke Is a Wheezy Throwback for New York City

This looks familiar.

Manhattan in the smoggy 1950s and today.
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images

“An eye-smarting, throat-irritating twilight gray hung over New York, New Jersey, Long Island, and Westchester all day,” reported The New York Times, warning local residents that “today is to be warm, which would prolong the four-day smoky haze plaguing the East.”

True enough. Only, The New York Times published those words … back in 1953.

It’s been smokier in New York than California this year, with the Air Quality Index (AQI) hitting triple digits across the East Coast on Tuesday due to air blowing down from Canada, where there are more than 400 active fires. In addition to triggering a region-wide Air Quality Alert for more than 8 million people, all the smoke gave Manhattan the appearance of being in a brownish cloud:

Before the success of the Clean Air Act, scenes such as these were common over Manhattan — though not due to wildfires. Building incinerators, rampant coal burning, and vehicle emissions would regularly cause stagnant “killer smogs” that made “downtown Manhattan [look] like a Cloud City” during the mid-century. One such event, in 1966, is thought to have killed as many as 400 people.

Smog in 1953.Smog covers New York City in 1953.Library of Congress/Walter Albertin

Smog in 1870.More smog in 1970...Library of Congress/Bernard Gotfryd

Smog in 1973....and again in 1973.The National Archives/Environmental Protection Agency/Wilbert Holman Blanche

The smoke in New York this week is not directly comparable to the 1960s and 1970s in terms of concentration — the inhalable particles (PM 2.5) circulating on Tuesday were concentrated between 52 micrograms of pollutant per one cubic meter of air (that is, “52 µg/m³”) and 70.2µg/m³, depending on time of day and where you were on the East Coast. That’s still over 10 times the World Health Organization’s annual air quality guideline and “unhealthy for sensitive groups,” but a far cry from the 100 to 200 µg/m³ annual average concentration of fine particle pollutants that sickened and killed New Yorkers in the 1960s and 1970s.

Still, wildfire smoke is nothing to sneeze — or rather, cough — at; there is no single AQI number where the air stops being safe to breathe. That said, researchers have estimated that people of all ages are 1% more likely to die of nontraumatic events like a heart attack or stroke on days where the PM2.5 value is above 20.4 μg/m3 (that is, less than half the concentration in New York on Tuesday). The cumulative effect is bad too: People are “2% more likely to die on the day immediately after a smoke event,” Crosscut reports. There are also increased cancer risks from living near wildfires, another study found.

Though there have been major national improvements in air quality, contemporary New Yorkers are still no strangers to bad air, wildfires or no. From gas stoves that renters can’t avoid to subway platforms to trucks, buses, and power plants that spew cancer-causing particulate matter, we may have air that is technically better than our arch-rival Los Angeles’, but it still definitely isn’t great. That gives us all the more reason to pay close attention when it gets even worse.

Some throwbacks should stay in the past.

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Jeva Lange profile image

Jeva Lange

Jeva is a founding staff writer at Heatmap. Her writing has also appeared in The Week, where she formerly served as executive editor and culture critic, as well as in The New York Daily News, Vice, and Gothamist, among others. Jeva lives in New York City.

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