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,” President Joe Biden said on Twitter.
AccuWeather, a private U.S. forecasting service, said thick fog and smoke, spreading from high altitudes to ground level, marked the worst outbreak of wildfire smoke to blanket the northeastern United States in more than 20 years.
New York’s famous skyline, normally visible for miles, has disappeared in an otherworldly smog, and some residents say they feel sick.
“It makes it hard to breathe,” said Mohammad Abbas, while 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 working shorter hours and wearing masks used for high pollen counts.
“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?”
Angel Emmanuel Ramirez, 29, a fashion stylist at a Givenchy store in Manhattan, said she and her colleagues felt sick and closed the store early after noticing the smell of smoke.
“It’s so intense, you’d think there was a wildfire across the river, not in Canada,” Ramirez said.
New York Governor Kathy Hochul called the situation an “emergency crisis,” saying 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 up and down the East Coast suspended outdoor activities, including sports, field trips and recess.
A Broadway matinee of “Prima Face” was called off after 10 minutes after poor air quality left actress Jodie Comer struggling to breathe. A production spokesperson said in a statement that the show has been rebooted with Dani Arlington, who will play Tessa, reprising her role.
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 noon (1600 GMT), Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, recorded the nation’s worst air quality index, with an AQI of 410. Among major cities, New York had the world’s highest AQI of 342 on Wednesday afternoon. According to IQAir, for chronically polluted cities like Dubai (168) and Delhi (164).
Smoke crossing from Canada
Smoke drifted across the US border from Canada, where hundreds of wildfires burned 9.4 million acres (3.8 million hectares) and forced 120,000 people from their homes.
The skies above New York and several North American cities grew progressively dimmer through Wednesday, with smoke filtering an eerie yellow hue through the canopy. 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, eye irritation, skin irritation and rashes.
A Home Depot store in Manhattan sold out of air purifiers and masks. New York road runners have canceled 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.”
Pedestrians donned face masks in numbers recalling the worst days of the coronavirus pandemic.
Tyrone Sylvester, 66, has been playing chess in Manhattan’s Union Square for 30 years, but 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, Aqueweather said.
Reporting by Tyler Clifford in New York and Denny Thomas in Canada; Additional reporting by Nancy Lappit, 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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