Taryn Chung/Sun Staff Photographer

Tompkins County has been enshrouded by a yellow haze due to Canadian wildfires.

June 7, 2023

Wildfire Smoke Threatens Public Health in Tompkins County and Northeast United States

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For Cornellians spending their summer in Tompkins County or the Northeast United States, sunny summer skies have been shrouded by smoke and haze due to Canadian wildfires. As of 3 p.m. on Wednesday, June 7, the city of Ithaca had an air quality index of 208, labeled as “very unhealthy” by AirNow, a government air quality database. 

On Tuesday, June 6, Canada had over 400 actively burning wildfires, with 240 fires burning out of control. The fires — which are concentrated mainly in Quebec — were largely ignited by lightning in early June. However, above-average temperatures and dry conditions have escalated wildfire outbreaks across the nation since May.

A storm system located near the Nova Scotia coast has propelled smoke from the fires into the United States. Smoke and haze are particularly concentrated in the northeast United States — which includes some of the most densely populated regions in the nation.

As of Wednesday, the city of Ithaca’s air quality fit under the “very unhealthy” category. (Taryn Chung/Sun Staff Photographer)

Local Tompkins County officials issued an alert on Tuesday alerting of poor air quality in the county and discouraging any outdoor activities. There was another alert later that day indicating that the air quality index was about 201. The levels of air pollution entered the “very unhealthy” category. The AQI levels were higher than other cities like the New York City Metropolitan Area, which had an AQI of 174 on Tuesday.

According to AirNow, an AQI reading above 100 is considered “unhealthy,” a reading above 200 is considered “very unhealthy” and a reading above 300 is labeled as “hazardous.”

In a statement from Wednesday morning, Tompkins County officials also stated that local air quality was now qualified as “hazardous” — the AQI was measured at about 301 — and presenting a greater risk to public health than previously estimated. The figures are almost double the estimated New York City Metropolitan Area AQI of 155 according to the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation.

In the statement, the Tompkins County Whole Health Commissioner Frank Kruppa advised residents on the dangers of exposure to air pollution. 

“Particle pollution can cause serious health problems, including asthma attacks, heart attacks, strokes and early death,” Kruppa wrote. “At this elevated level of pollutants, it is recommended for everyone to avoid outdoor physical activities to minimize exposure. We advise our community to stay up to date on the on-going air quality situation.”

The statement follows an alert from the NYSDEC that residents of the Long Island, New York City Metro, Eastern Lake Ontario, Central New York and Western New York regions should remain indoors and take precautions because of the air pollution. 

Individuals with pre-existing respiratory problems, the very young and older adults are particularly sensitive to worsened air quality conditions. (Taryn Chung/Sun Staff Photographer)

Tim Fitzpatrick, senior director of Cornell University’s Department of Environment, Health and Safety, also sent an email to members of the Cornell community on Wednesday advising community members to follow safety guidelines in response to air quality concerns.

“Outdoor physical activity should be limited to reduce the risk of adverse health effects,” Fitzpatrick wrote. “People who may be especially sensitive to the effects of elevated levels of pollutants, including the very young, older adults and those with pre-existing respiratory problems such as asthma or heart disease, should remain indoors if possible.”

Fitzpatrick also stated that campus departments should reschedule outdoor activities and adjust outdoor operations.

On Wednesday, the level of particulate matter in the air due to smoke was deemed unhealthy in regions from Detroit to Philadelphia. New York Gov. Kathy Hochul stated that the worsening air quality in the state is “an emergency crisis” and warned residents to prepare for several days of air quality issues.

“New York City and Syracuse were among the worst places in the entire planet yesterday,” Hochul said. “The bottom line is this: If you can stay indoors, stay indoors.”

Updates regarding air quality concerns will continue to be issued through the Cornell Emergency Management website.