In clear conditions, the majestic span of the George Washington Bridge, which connects New Jersey to New York City, can be seen from the promenade of Riverbank State Park. (Photo by David Galarza.)

Smoke from wildfires in Canada recently led to significant air pollution across the state, as New Yorkers were among the 128 million people in the United States who were recently affected by this situation that was previously unprecedented in New York.

In some areas, the smoke and pollution led to skies being transformed into a deep orange haze that many New Yorkers have only previously seen in dystopian movies and television shows.

The pollutants led the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Air Quality Index (AQI) readings to reach unhealthy, and at times, hazardous levels across New York.

Gov. Kathy Hochul deemed the situation an “emergency crisis.” The governor and other state and local officials advised New Yorkers to avoid outdoor activities, stay indoors and wear masks to protect themselves, preferably N-95 or KN-95 masks that filter out particles.

While the smoke and haze grounded flights, closed some schools and disrupted outdoor activities, CSEA members continued to provide essential services, taking precautions while doing so.

“Much of the state has been inundated with smoke caused by wildfires in Canada,” said CSEA President Mary E. Sullivan, as much of the state was affected. “The governor recently advised against outdoor activity. I urge all members to do what’s best for their health such as wearing masks and staying indoors, if possible, during this time.”

Poor air quality

Weather stations operated by the National Weather Service (NWS) monitor the levels of hazardous air pollutants across the country. From those measurements, the AQI is calculated. The AQI is an overall value summarizing the contribution of all the pollutants and gives the potential for air quality to affect human health. The AQI can range in value from 0 to 500, with higher values indicating worsening air quality.

As skies grew hazy, the air grew smoky and daylight was shrouded in shades of orange. Many New Yorkers repeatedly checked the EPA’s AQI readings found on the agency’s air quality website,

At the height of the pollution, New York City had the worst air quality in the world, recording the most hazardous AQI readings since those measured in Lower Manhattan after 9/11.

The primary pollutant that was generated by the Canadian wildfires is the particulate matter or PM, which consists of tiny solid particles or liquid droplets in the air that are 2.5 microns (PM 2.5) or less in diameter. The particles are considered hazardous because they can reach the lower portions of the lungs and cause inflammation that can have severe medical consequences for people that have sensitive respiratory systems, like those with asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder (COPD), reactive airway disease (RAS) or congestive heart failure.

Exposure to fine particulate matter can lead to irritation to the eyes, nose, and throat, coughing, sneezing, runny nose, and shortness of breath, and exposure to elevated pollutant levels poses an even higher risk for senior citizens, children, pregnant people and individuals with asthma, heart disease and other respiratory illnesses.

Studies have also found that short-term exposure to small particulate matter increases the risk of a range of cardiovascular and respiratory diseases.

While New York had previously seen only a limited amount of air pollution from wildfires, it is more common in the Western United States. Many experts predict that New York could face pollutants from wildfires more frequently.

— Janice Gavin

Highway crews continue vital work in smoky haze

UTICA — When visibility is bad in Central New York, usually heavy lake-effect snow or a white-out snow squall is to blame, not Canadian wildfires.

But as smoke passed through the state, state Department of Transportation workers continued their daily duties maintaining roads and bridges, but they did so with a number of safety concerns in mind.


Utica State Employees Local President Brian Mishlanie said he fielded numerous calls from members who were out on the job during the environmental event. The most prevalent concerns being inhaling smoke, not having proper personal protective equipment (PPE), and working in poor visibility.

“The visibility was a big concern,” said Mishlanie. “We have people who have gotten killed when visibility is 100 percent. You can’t preach safety and then send our members out in dangerous working conditions.”

CSEA’s Occupational Safety and Health Department recommends that you avoid outdoor work and other activities as much as possible in poor air quality conditions. If you must perform outdoor work, your employer is responsible for providing personal protective equipment and taking measures to keep you as safe as possible.

— Nicholas Newcomb


About Author

Janice Gavin is the editor of The Work Force and CSEA’s special interest publications. A graduate of SUNY Plattsburgh and Syracuse University, Gavin has been a journalist and public relations professional for more than 25 years. She worked as a newspaper reporter and bureau chief at the Plattsburgh Press-Republican, where she was honored with Associated Press and New York Newspaper Publishers Association awards. Gavin joined CSEA as a communications specialist in the union's Southern Region in 2000. In 2004, she became The Work Force's associate editor, a position she held until becoming the publication's editor in 2017. Growing up in a union household, she is dedicated to improving workers’ lives through telling their stories.

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