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Stay inside to avoid smoke pollution, urge New York health experts

 Canadian wildfires helped lead to another day of hazy skies across upstate New York on Tuesday, June 6, 2023.
Randy Gorbman
Canadian wildfires helped lead to another day of hazy skies across upstate New York on Tuesday, June 6, 2023.

With hazy conditions continuing Wednesday throughout the region, an air quality alert for the region has been extended until midnight Thursday.

The conditions are primarily due to wildfires burning in Quebec and Nova Scotia, along with a strong high-pressure system and little or no rain.

The city of Rochester on Wednesday said it was moving or canceling outdoor activities, and the Rochester City School District canceled all outdoor activities. Monroe County closed the Seneca Park Zoo and all county parks, including golf courses. The county also said employees who typically work outdoors are performing indoor tasks.

The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation has issued Air Quality Health Advisoriesfor much of the upstate region. The DEC classified the Rochester region's air quality as "unhealthy" on Wednesday. That's due to what is referred to as particulate matter.

When pollution levels are elevated, state health department officials recommend limiting strenuous outdoor physical activity to reduce the risk of adverse health effects.

URMC pulmonologist and air pollution expert Dr. Daniel Croft said that the problem with forest fires is “that they create a complex mixture of air pollution.”

Croft said that now that the smoke and air quality are much worse (on Wednesday), all people regardless of their sensitivity to smoky conditions should be careful.

His advice is to stay inside if possible, recirculate air in the car, avoid strenuous activity outdoors, and wear an N95 or respirator when outside. Also use an indoor air cleaner if possible.

Croft also notes that “the wood smoke can put individuals who are immunosuppressed at increased risk for respiratory infection.”

Dr. S. Shahzad Mustafa is Rochester Regional’s chief of allergy immunology and rheumatology. He said the level of danger from the smoke should be minimal for most individuals.

"Certainly changes in air quality are happening on a daily basis,” noted Mustafa. “Today's change is a little more pronounced and it's visible. And you can sense that you can smell it. But there's no reason for panic. These changes have modest impact on respiratory conditions for the vast majority of individuals."

Mustafa advised individuals with acute respiratory issues or heart disease to limit outdoor activity — or wear a mask if you must go outside.

A runner is out despite the thick wildfire smoke.
Max Schulte
A runner is out despite the thick wildfire smoke.

The smoke from the wildfires in parts of Canada may not be directly caused by climate change, but climate is a factor.

That’s according to Flavio Lehner, an assistant professor of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at Cornell University.

He said there are a variety of factors that are causing the wildfires and bringing the smoke over the Northeast, some of which are not directly related to climate change.

But Lehner said there still is a connection overall in many of the extreme weather events we’ve seen in recent years.

“Climate change has likely made this event more likely, maybe more severe, in this case, maybe allowed the fires to spread further than they would otherwise have,” said Lehner. “That is not the same as saying climate change caused this event. In almost all cases of extreme weather, climate change did not cause it, the event happened by itself, because the weather is variable, but climate change amplified it.”

Meteorologist Josh Nichols said some relief is on the way.

“Another plume of smoke will arrive tomorrow (Wednesday), keeping the sky on the hazy side,” he said. "If all indications pan out, the smoke plumes will finally thin later on for (Wednesday) night.”

Nichols said the area could see some much-needed rain at that time as well.

It has been unusually dry in the Rochester-Finger Lakes region for more than two weeks now.
Copyright 2023 WXXI News. To see more, visit WXXI News.

Racquel Stephen is WXXI's health reporter, joining the newsroom in 2021.
Randy Gorbman is WXXI's Director of News and Public Affairs. Randy manages the day-to-day operations of WXXI News on radio, television, and online.