Hazy Skies and Air Quality Concerns: Columbia Faculty Weigh In on Canadian Wildfires

Read what experts at the University have to say about the impact of recent wildfires in Canada on New York City and North America more broadly.

Caroline Harting and Kelly Moffitt-Hawasly
June 07, 2023

This past week, North America, particularly the Northeast, has been shrouded in an orange haze that started from hundreds of wildfires in Canada. And today, Columbia Prepardness issued an Air Quality Alert to members of the Columbia community.

How will this haze impact New York City residents? How should we protect ourselves from the smoke? When will the haze dissipate? Columbia faculty members weigh in on our current situation.

This article will be updated as more news clips become available.

How the Canadian Wildfires Are Impacting Our Air Quality and Why We Should Expect More Days Like These in the Future

Steven Chillrud, a research professor at Columbia Climate School's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, noted that masks, particularly well-fitted K95 or N95 mask, can remove particulate matter for the wearer. (The Journal News, June 7, 2023)

With rates of air pollution so high in New York City, Róisín Commane, assistant professor of earth and environmental science at Columbia Climate Schools' Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, "cautioned that the monitor readings can be unreliable." (Gothamist, June 7, 2023)

Darby Jack, associate professor of environmental health sciences at Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health said that for healthy New Yorkers current air pollution levels are more of an annoyance than a risk. New Yorkers can protect their health by staying indoors, and can take additional measures to preserve indoor air quality by using a HEPA filter. (Crain's New York Business, June 7, 2023)

Marianthi-Anna Kioumourtzoglou, assistant professor of environmental health sciences at Columbia’s Mailman School of Public Health, said that exposure worsens symptoms for respiratory diseases, such as asthma, and cardiovascular conditions such as heart disease  Kioumourtzoglou said she would not be surprised if final reports recorda an uptick in deaths. "It’s not that you cannot survive it, but it’s definitely not healthy,” she said. "There is no safe level of pollution.” (Gothamist, June 15, 2023).

As of June 8, city and state data had yet to detect an increase in patients seeking medical assistance for asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease or other respiratory complaints. Robbie M. Parks, an assistant professor of environmental health sciences at Columbia University who is studying the health impact of wildfire smoke, said he was mildly surprised by the data because there is not typically much of a lag between exposure and increased ER visits. He expects the full impact will become clearer next week. (Yahoo News, June 8, 2023)

Jeff Schlegelmilch, director of Columbia Climate School’s National Center for Disaster Preparedness, also noted that our current air quality will be particularly harmful to different populations, like the very old, very young, or people with pre-existing respiratory problems. (NPR, June 6, 2023)

Dan Westervelt, an atmospheric scientist at the Columbia Climate School’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory and an air pollution advisor to the U.S. State Department, explained how the smoke particles could travel thousands of miles and how we can best protect ourselves from the smoke. (Curbed, June 6, 2023)

Westervelt warned of potential dangers to vulnerable people at this week’s Yankees games. (The Athletic, June 7, 2023)

Christopher Tedeschi, associate professor of emergency medicine at Columbia University Irving Medical Center, said that even those without underlying conditions could feel the effects of the wildfires and warned of an increase in Emergency Room visits. (WNYC, June 7, 2023)

Stephanie Lovinsky-Desir, chief of pediatric pulmonology at Columbia University Irving Medical Center, said that poor air quality can exacerbate asthma in the short term and that chronic exposure is linked to smaller lung size. She encouraged New Yorkers to keep their windows closed and to use air filters, when possible. (Financial Post, June 7, 2023). 

More Background on Wildfires, Air Pollution, and Climate Change

Indigenous South Americans Far More Likely to Die From Wildfire Smoke, Study Says

Columbia Climate School (May 4, 2023): A recent study authored by researchers at Harvard University, the Columbia Climate School’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, and other institutions reveals that Indigenous people in the Amazon Basin are twice as likely to die prematurely from smoke exposure due to wildfires than the broader South American population.

Black Americans, Low-Income Americans May Benefit Most from Stronger Air Pollution Policies

Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health (March 23, 2023): Stronger regulations lowering levels of fine particulate air pollutants would benefit the health of all Americans, but Black Americans and low-income Americans would likely reap the most benefits, including a lower risk of premature death, according to a new study led by researchers at Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health, Harvard, and the University of Colorado.

How Can the World Adapt to a Changing Climate?

Columbia News (July 20, 2022): In her recent book, Columbia Climate School Lecturer Lisa Dale provides key strategies at local and global scales.

Racial Disparities in Air Pollution Where Most Americans Live Worse Than Previously Understood

Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health (July 7, 2022): Scientists at Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health and partners conducted an analysis of racial disparities in urban air pollution that revealed starker differences in air pollution levels than previously understood in the communities where most Americans live. 

Bronx Gets Another Boost Toward a Clean Air Future

Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health (April 25, 2022): This Earth Day, Congressman Ritchie Torres pushed for policies to reduce air pollution in Bronx neighborhoods. Rep. Torres cited research by Columbia Mailman faculty that has identified pollution sources and proposed solutions.

Air Pollution Is Harming People in the Global South at an Alarming Rate. A Climate School Project Wants to Help.

Columbia News (July 23, 2021): Researchers from Columbia's Climate School are using data collection, community collaboration, and startups to reduce the negative health effects of pollution in India, Indonesia, and the continent of Africa.

Climate Change Fuels Significant Increase in U.S. Forest Fires

Columbia Magazine (2017): A 2016 study co-authored by Park Williams, a climatologist at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, confirmed what many experts had long suspected: that human-induced climate change is fueling the infernos.