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New York state officials warn residents to keep an eye on air quality

 Hazy skies in Albany caused by June 2023 wildfires in Canada
Samantha Simmons
Hazy skies in Albany caused by ongoing wildfires in Canada

New York's environmental conservation and health departments are urging residents to take caution this summer as air quality shifts.

Last summer, DEC Forest Rangers were deployed on several missions in Canada to combat wildfires that burned more than 18 million hectares and negatively impacted air quality across the Northeast for weeks. They hadn’t been deployed to Canada since 2005.

DEC interim Commissioner Sean Mahar says major events like the Canadian wildfires prove the importance of monitoring air quality.

“Through the laws and regulations that we've passed, we have really created cleaner skies here in New York,” Mahar said. “But as we're part of a global system, we are impacted by things and events that happen in other parts of the globe. So last summer, obviously, the Canadian wildfires had a major impact on our air quality and really you know, highlighted the need for folks to use the resources that we have available and that we are putting out regularly.”

Mahar says air quality alerts and advisories are available at airnow.gov (here.)

State Health Commissioner James McDonald says with a plethora of parks and outdoor activities available across the state, residents and tourists should take protections. McDonald says as summer begins, changes in air quality, like increases in particulate matter, ozone, and other pollutants, leading to adverse air quality.

“As that number goes higher, it definitely affects our health and wellbeing. Once it gets to 100 or higher, some vulnerable individuals are going to start noticing, and they might want to minimize what they do out there, as if you're extremely vulnerable,” McDonald said. “The higher it gets, the more it can affect everybody. When it gets above 150 people in the entire population might want to take note and maybe be careful how you do exercise outside.”

McDonald says residents need to accept that the climate has changed and there will be periodic shifts in air quality as a result.

Particulate matter, which is a mixture of solids and liquids and can be easily inhaled, are often emitted from smokestacks, fire, and unpaved roads. The EPA says most particles in the atmosphere are “pollutants emitted from power plants, industries, and automobiles.”

According to Airnow, the Air Quality Index ranges from zero to 301 and even higher. A good air quality day, valued at 0 to 50, means air pollution poses little or no risk. An AQI between 101 and 150 is unhealthy for sensitive groups, and 201 to 300 is very unhealthy and everyone should exercise caution.

Sensitive groups are considered those with heart or lung disease, older adults, children and teenagers, and those active outdoors. Those affected are asked to reduce exposure, take more breaks, and keep treatment for asthma on hand when alerts are issued.

Earlier this year, the University at Albany received $1 million through the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to promote community air quality monitoring. The grants are meant to promote positive health outcomes in underserved neighborhoods throughout the state.

Despite concerns about air quality, one effort meant to reduce pollution in the New York City has been put on hold. Democratic Governor Kathy Hochul indefinitely paused a plan that would charge a new toll for drivers entering lower Manhattan, known as congestion pricing. Hochul says the plan, which was also meant to reduce traffic and bolster the MTA, was outdated and needed to be reevaluated.

Mahar says while congestion pricing is out for now, the state has other legislation in place.

“We're advancing the advanced clean truck rule and other steps to really make sure our transportation networks are decarbonizing and becoming cleaner, which will directly impact and have an important impact on reducing air quality impacts in communities across the state,” Mahar said.

The Advanced Clean Trucks rule, which was adopted in 2021, requires manufacturers of vehicles more than 8,500 pounds to increase zero-emission vehicle sales in New York in an effort to meet Hochul’s goal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 85 percent by 2050.

Air quality alerts and advisories for New Yorkers are available through text and email.

Samantha joined the WAMC staff after interning during her final semester at the University at Albany. A Troy native, she looks forward to covering what matters most to those in her community. Aside from working, Samantha enjoys spending time with her friends, family, and cat. She can be reached by phone at (518)-465-5233 Ext. 211 or by email at ssimmons@wamc.org.