Air, Air, Everywhere, and Not a Breath Safe to Take


If you live, as I do, anywhere in the Eastern half of the country, for the past week you’ve probably been thinking about something you’re not used to: wildfires.  Sure, we’ve all been aware of how wildfires routinely plague the West Coast, particularly Oregon and Washington, but it’s novel for the East. So when the smoke from Canadian wildfires deluged cities through the East and Midwest, it came as kind of a shock.

For a day last week, New York City supposedly had the worst air quality in the world.  The next day Philadelphia had that dubious distinction.  The air quality index in those cities, and many others, got into the “Maroon” level, which means it was hazardous for everyone.  Not just for the elderly and other “sensitive” groups, and not just some risk for some people, but hazardous for everyone.   

If you didn’t know about before, you should now.

New Yorkers are used to smog and air quality that is less than idyllic, but smoke from wildfires, containing fine particulates that easily get into the lungs, weren’t something anyone was prepared for.  “Wildfires were not really a scenario, in all honesty, that I recall us specifically contemplating,” Daniel Kass, New York City’s deputy commissioner for environmental health from 2009 to 2016, admitted to NBC News.   

“People on the East Coast aren’t used to seeing these types of situations. There was a much slower response,” Peter DeCarlo, an associate professor of environmental health and engineering at Johns Hopkins University, also told NBC News. “We can probably learn a thing or two from our West Coast friends.”

Even lessons from the West Coast might not have helped much.  An analysis by The Guardian revealed the smoke produced the worst readings since data on smoke conditions started being collected in 2006.  “It’s the worst by far, I mean, Jesus, it was bad,” said Marshall Burke, an environmental scientist at Stanford University who led the work. “It’s hard to believe to be honest, we had to quadruple check it to see if it was right. We have not seen events like this, or even close to this, on the east coast before. This is a historic event.”  

As numerous observers have noted, we’re three years into a pandemic that caused us to think about airborne particles – in that cause, coronavirus ones – in ways that we’d never had to before.  Wearing high quality masks become seen as life-critical, until not wearing them became a political statement for some, and the rest of us just got tired of them.  And, even then, most of us didn’t think we needed to wear them outdoors.  Now wildfire smoke caused many people dig out their N95s just to take a walk.

We once had smoke filled cities like Pittsburgh, when pollution caused it to be dark by noon and caused white-collar workers to need to change their shirts before day’s end. We like to think that efforts like The Clean Air Act took care of that, but that is wishful thinking. Wildfires, for example, aren’t covered by it, and, Professor Burke says, “In the past five to 10 years, we’ve seen a slowdown of progress in the West. And in the Northern Rockies, we’ve seen a reversal.” 

To make the problem worse, staying inside wasn’t necessarily protective enough. “People had terrible indoor air too, just really bad,” Professor Burke said. “Even staying at home is not fully protective.”

As Linsey Marr, an engineering professor at Virginia Tech, points out in The New York Times

The National Ambient Air Quality Standards apply to outdoor air and are designed to protect health, but no such standards exist for indoor air quality for the public, even though we spend, on average, about 90 percent of our time indoors. Also, these standards don’t help when unstoppable plumes of wildfire smoke drift through our cities and towns.

She points out that during heights of the pandemic there was much discussion about, and many billions of dollars allocated to, improving indoor air ventilation and filtration, but, she laments, “much of this remains unspent or was slow to be used, possibly because of a combination of lack of appreciation for the benefits it could bring and lack of guidance on how to obtain and spend the funds.”  

Francesca Dominici, an expert in air pollution and climate at Harvard University, told The Guiardian: “I hope as part of this crisis there is an opportunity to realize we need to act on climate change. We’ve gone from three years of not going out because of Covid and now we can’t go outside because of polluted air. The world and nature is telling us something, it’s sending us a very strong message.”

But, by all accounts, our public health system, and our confidence in vaccines, are both worse after three years of the pandemic than they were before, so there’s little reason to think these wildfires will result in sustained action about climate change.  The air has gotten better, most of us only got worried instead of sick, and if there were some extra hospital visits or even deaths because of the smoke, they weren’t enough to drive us out of our complacency.  

We conveniently forget that, even ruling out viruses and wildfire particulates, we have microplastics not just in our food and in our water, but in our rain and in the air.  This is true even in rural areas whose air we assume is pristine. We’re breathing them now, and there’s no visible smoke plume to tip us off.  We just don’t know what they’re doing to us…but I assume it’s not good.

I was especially struck by Professor Marr’s concluding remark: “As the saying goes, we wouldn’t accept a glass full of dirty water, and we should no longer accept a lungful of dirty air.”  

Of course, too many people (think Jackson MS or Flint MI) are still forced to drink that glass full of dirty water, and way too many of us are breathing those lungfuls of dirty air – be they from wildfires, industrial pollution, or omnipresent microplastics. 

We can’t stop wildfires, and can’t control where their smoke will drift, but we can – we must — think much seriously about air quality, and act with the urgency it requires.  

Kim is a former emarketing exec at a major Blues plan, editor of the late & lamented, and now regular THCB contributor.