October 26, 2021

Breathing easier

Recent rains help clear NY air of wildfire smoke

Associated Press

Cows graze as smoke rises from the Dixie Fire burning Monday in Lassen National Forest, California. Wildfires from Canada and the U.S. West have affected air quality in Cortland County as the smoke is blown east.

All that rain in July — more than 8.6 inches of it in Cortland — meant frequent checks to see if a hat or umbrella was part of the routine. But it also meant the air was routinely scrubbed of the smoke from the wildfires in the West.

Saturday morning, young children played on the Suggett Park playground in Cortland while parents sat and chatted. Wearing tiny sunglasses and a pink bucket hat, a toddler lounged as her pregnant mother pushed her swing. When the breeze swept the hat onto the playground floor, her mother swiftly grabbed the hat without missing her cue.

Teresa Bell of Dryden brought her daughter to Cortland for a play date, but didn’t know she could — or should — check the air quality before venturing outside.

“I don’t have an app that I would get an alert on, but I suppose that if I did see that there was a concern there, then maybe that’s not the day we go outside and play, but it’ll depend on what the quality is,” Bell said.

Last weekend, the air quality was good, and the skies were clear of haze.

However, New York could continue to see an effect of the wildfires’ smoke, reports the state Department of Environmental Conservation. The intermittent rain in Cortland County has likely helped clear the air, but the bright orange and pink sunsets last week were partly due to the presence of smoke.

Last week, the state issued an air quality advisory for the PM 2.5 pollutants in the air — meaning solid particles that were small enough to breathe in — but the pollutants cleared enough that no further warnings were issued.

Exposure to fine particulate matter can cause short-term health effects such as irritation to the eyes, nose, and throat, coughing, sneezing, runny nose and shortness of breath, said DEC representative Jeff Wernick.

The wildfires in Canada and the western United States resulted in a lot of smoke, and the smoke is traveling this far east, Wernick said.

“But in most cases when it does, most of it (the smoke) remains aloft in the atmosphere, and has little effect on surface PM 2.5 pollution that could affect public health,” he said.

For people with breathing problems, or young children whose lungs are still developing, even a slight decline in air quality could be cause for concern.

“If we had to go out, we would wear a mask,” Bell said, referring to a day when the air quality is poor.

Bell was already considering sending her daughter to daycare with a face mask, because the Delta variant of COVID-19 is becoming the dominant strain of the virus.

“They’re starting to put masks on again because of the rising cases, so she’ll have to do that anyway,” Bell said. “So, there’s already this issue with COVID and now air quality — something I haven’t necessarily paid attention to. But if I got an alert that said the quality isn’t great, then we can stay inside or wear our masks.”

“Most of the impact is coming from eastern Manitoba and western Ontario,” Wernick said, “so we expect to see intermittent smoke impact for the foreseeable future.”

Although the DEC is forecasting good air quality for the rest of the week, Bell is prepared with a stock of wool face masks for everyone in her family.

“We also have surgical, medical masks that we could wear as an extra precaution — especially since I’m pregnant,” Bell said.

Exposure to poor air quality can also complicate medical conditions such as asthma and heart disease, Wernick said.

“I do have a parent who lives an hour north of here, and he has slight emphysema,” Bell said. “That’s probably something I’d want to call him up and say, ‘Hey, are you aware of this?’ Of course I don’t know how much they’re going outside anyway, but I think I’ll bring it up next time I talk to them.”