NEW YORK, June 7 (Reuters) – Schools across the U.S. East Coast canceled outdoor activities, air traffic slowed and millions of Americans were urged to stay indoors on Wednesday as smoke from Canadian wildfires drifted south and engulfed cities in a thick, yellow haze.
The US National Weather Service issued air quality warnings along the Atlantic coast. Health officials from Vermont to South Carolina and western Ohio and Kansas warned residents that spending time outdoors could cause respiratory problems due to high levels of fine particles in the atmosphere.
“It’s critical that Americans who experience dangerous air pollution, especially those with health conditions, listen to local officials to protect themselves and their families,” US President Joe Biden said on Twitter.
Biden spoke with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Wednesday to offer additional U.S. support, the White House said in a written statement. The White House added that the US has already sent more than 600 firefighters and support personnel to fight the blaze.
AccuWeather, a private U.S. forecasting service, said thick fog and smoke, extending from high altitudes to ground levels, marked the worst outbreak of wildfire smoke to blanket the northeastern United States in more than 20 years.
New York’s world-famous skyline, normally visible for miles, seemed to disappear beneath an otherworldly smoke screen, and some residents said they felt sick.
“It makes it hard to breathe,” said Mohammad Abbas, walking down Broadway in Manhattan. “I was scheduled for a road test for my driver’s license today and it was cancelled.”
The smog was especially harsh for outdoor workers like Chris Ricciardi, owner of Neighbors NV Landscaping in Roxbury, New Jersey. He said he and his crew are cutting back on work hours and wearing the masks they used to wear when the pollen was high.
“We don’t have the luxury of stopping work,” he said. “We want to keep exposure to smoke to a minimum, but what can you really do?”
New York Governor Kathy Hochul called the situation an “emergency crisis,” noting that air pollution levels for parts of her state were eight times higher than normal.
Low visibility from the fog forced the Federal Aviation Administration to slow air traffic to the New York City area, along the East Coast and to Philadelphia in the upper Midwest.
Schools along the East Coast canceled outdoor activities, including sports practices, field trips and recess, to protect students.
In Bethesda, Maryland, a high school moved its graduation ceremony indoors, while an elementary school in Brooklyn, New York postponed its “Spring Fling” dance party.
A Broadway matinee of “Prima Face” was halted 10 minutes into its performance after actress Jodie Comer experienced breathing difficulties due to poor air quality.
“Dani Arlington, who plays Ms. Comer as Tessa, is back from the top,” a production spokesperson said in a statement.
Major League Baseball was also affected, as the New York Yankees and Philadelphia Phillies both postponed their scheduled home games on Wednesday. A National Women’s Soccer League game in Harrison, New Jersey was also rescheduled, as was a WNBA women’s basketball game in Brooklyn.
In some areas, the Air Quality Index (AQI), which measures key pollutants, including particulate matter from fires, sets 100 as “unhealthy” and 300 as “hazardous,” according to Aerno.
At 12 noon EDT (1600 GMT), Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, was experiencing the worst air quality in the nation, with an AQI of 410. Among major cities, New York had the worst air quality in the world on Wednesday afternoon. 342, according to IQAir, double the reading of chronically polluted cities like Dubai (168) and Delhi (164).
Smoke crossing from Canada
Smoke billowed from Canada to the US northern border, where hundreds of wildfires had burned 9.4 million acres (3.8 million hectares) and forced 120,000 people from their homes.
Skies above New York and many other North American cities grew progressively dimmer through Wednesday. The wind blew like burning wood.
Wildfire smoke has been linked to more heart attacks and strokes, increased emergency room visits for asthma and other respiratory conditions, and other problems such as eye irritation, skin irritation and rashes.
A Home Depot in Manhattan sold out of air purifiers and masks as residents scrambled to protect themselves. New York road runners cancel events marking Global Running Day
“This is not a day to train for a marathon or have an outdoor event with your kids,” advised New York Mayor Eric Adams. “If you’re elderly or have heart or respiratory problems or are elderly, you should stay inside.”
City pedestrians wore masks in numbers reminiscent of the worst days of the coronavirus pandemic.
Tyrone Sylvester, 66, plays chess outside in Manhattan’s Union Square, but in 30 years wearing a mask, he said he’s never seen the city’s air quality so bad.
“When the sun looks like that,” he said, pointing to a bronze orb visible in the smoky sky, “we know something’s wrong. That’s what global warming looks like.”
Poor air quality is likely to persist through the weekend, with a developing storm system expected to move smoke westward over the Great Lakes and deep south into the Ohio Valley and Mid-Atlantic, AccuWeather said.
Reporting by Tyler Clifford in New York and Denny Thomas in Canada; Additional reporting by Nancy Lapid, Julia Hart, Brad Brooks and Dan Whitcomb; Written by Joseph Ochs and Steve Gorman; Editing by David Gregorio, Rosalba O’Brien and Jamie Freed
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