Don’t Breathe the Air

Urban Resilience Project
4 min readJun 26, 2023
Photo credit: Ahmer Kalam/ Unsplash

By Priyanka deSouza and Patrick Kinney

On June 7 and 8, 2023, the sky in the Northeast turned sepia. Broadway shows were cancelled. Photographs of mundane scenes — a hot dog cart in NYC, the iconic Brooklyn Bridge — took on an apocalyptic quality, against the orange swirl of wildfire smoke. This is not the first time that a huge number of Americans have been exposed to toxic wildfire smoke. The scenes from New York made many Californians think back to the ash-filled sky in September 2020, when wildfires in the area made it impossible to breathe. However, researchers reported that June 7 and 8 were the worst individual wildfire smoke days on record for the US, in terms of the number of people exposed to the highest smoke-related fine particulate matter concentrations.

Where did the smoke in early June come from? Due to record-setting prolonged hot and dry conditions, the boreal forests in Canada became a tinder box with more than 400 fires blazing across the region. Climate researchers have projected larger and more frequent forest fires in the future. In fact, on June 13 alone, the Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Center wrote that an unprecedented 100,000 hectares of forest burned, increasing its yearly total so far to 5.1 million hectares or 20,000 square miles.

Wildfire-related air pollution has been shown to be associated with a wide range of negative impacts including increased respiratory and cardiovascular health effects and worsening test scores in schools. Researchers have estimated that the cost in lost annual earnings in the US from workers exposed to smoke amounts to a colossal $125 billion. Importantly, the increase in pollution from wildfire smoke can lead to a reversal of air quality gains the US has achieved since the passing of the Clean Air Act in the 1970s. My work has shown that annual PM2.5 concentrations have actually increased after 2016 for the first time in decades. Troublingly, the smoke from wildfires is not counted as pollution under the Clean Air Act, neither is smoke from prescribed burning, which is a key mitigation measure for wildfires. This needs to change if we are to address the massive problem that wildfires are likely to present in the future.

What can we do to protect ourselves when the next wildfire smoke event occurs? In the moment, do not exercise or perform other strenuous outdoor activities. Try and stay indoors and reduce your exposure to the pollution. Note that, by looking at measurements reported from indoor low-cost PurpleAir air quality monitoring network, researchers found that air pollution in indoor spaces were also high (PM2.5 levels were > 100 μg/m3; compare this with the daily-averaged standard of 35 μg/m3). This suggests that during such events, it is also important to run air purifiers at home to scrub the air. Although some people recommend not running your AC which can draw in outside air, it is better to keep your AC on, especially if you’re having trouble breathing to maintain a comfortable temperature. You can use high-quality, well-fitted, filtering masks (KN95, N95, KF94) to reduce your exposure to the pollution. Although you may still smell the smoke from gas molecules that pass through your mask, you will still be protected from ~95% of particles of all types in the air.

We are living in unprecedented times. We have just emerged from a pandemic caused by a tiny virus latching on to tiny particles floating in the air, whispering to us words of wisdom about the need for better air quality. The message the wildfires bring is more of twist and shout! We need to reduce air pollution emissions and mitigate outdoor pollution measures. But we also need to improve air quality in our indoor spaces. There have recently been important congressional efforts to improve indoor air quality during wildfire events. For instance, Rep. Scott Peters (D-California) and Senators Michael Bennet (D-Colorado) and Jeff Markey (D-Oregon) plan to introduce legislation to make air filtration units more affordable to the public and to set up clean air centers that are accessible to communities.

In the long-term, however, we need to do better to tackle the root problem and prevent climate change from getting worse- there is simply no getting around it.

Priyanka deSouza is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Urban and Regional Planning at the University of Colorado Denver where she probes different ways of understanding air pollution and its effects.

Patrick Kinney is the Beverly Brown professor of urban health at the Boston University School of Public Health. His research and teaching focus on the health dimensions of climate change, with a particular focus on air pollution.

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Urban Resilience Project

A changing climate means a changing society. The Island Press Urban Resilience Project (URP) is committed to a greener, fairer future. www.islandpress.org/URP