September 28, 2023

New Yorkers get a taste of what it’s like to live in the pollution of Delhi, Doha and Shanghai

A hazy New York City skyline

The sun rises over a hazy New York City skyline.Seth Wenig/Associated Press

  • The air in New York City is terrible this week because of smoke from Canadian wildfires.

  • Hazy skies are a shock to New York and other eastern areas, but bad air is common in many cities.

  • The US didn’t always have the clean air many of us are used to.

As a former resident of New York City, I’m always curious about what goes on there. This week I didn’t expect my lyrics to be about air quality.

Colleagues, friends, and relatives in various places along the East Coast texted me about the horrible smoke blanketing their neighborhood, with a cousin saying he was having trouble breathing. Another family member said that Manhattan looked apocalyptic.

For the past few days, the air in New York City has seemed dirtier than the bottom of a subway track. The foul smell of massive Canadian wildfires is expected to linger at least Saturday.

As shocked as New Yorkers — and people in other major cities from Detroit to Washington, D.C. — may be that they can barely make out their skylines, this is nothing new to many people living in other parts of the world.

Lahore, Pakistan; Hotan, China; and Bhiwadi, India, had the worst air quality in the world by 2022, according to data from IQ Air. My colleague Spriha Srivastava wrote that New York’s suffocating smog reminds her of her childhood in Delhi.

Indeed, New York City tops the list – and especially of the perennial offenders – because it has the worst air quality and is dangerous to breathe. New York City Mayor Eric Adams said the air quality index hit 484 Wednesday afternoon, on a scale of 500. As of Thursday afternoon, it’s around 180 — still not great.

New Yorkers and others are getting a taste of what it can be like to live in Doha, Qatar and Shanghai, where air pollution at least appears to be improving.

A hazy Manhattan skyline

The sky over Manhattan looked orange on Wednesday.Julia LeMense

Expectations about clean air are ingrained in many developed economies. But that wasn’t always the case, even in the US. Pioneering legislation like the Clean Air Act, signed into law by President Nixon in 1970 and reinforced in 1990, acted as a giant air filter for the nation.

Today, in many global cities where air quality is poor, the focus is often on building economies to lift people out of poverty.

“They’re in a period of rapid economic growth,” Robert Kremens, a physicist who studies wildfires, told Insider. “They sacrifice air quality over human health.”

He said those decisions are often understandable because, for example, it is aimed at ensuring that citizens do not go hungry.

However, there are also consequences of the pollution. A study published last year found that 86% of people living in the world’s urban spaces experience air pollution levels more than seven times higher than the guidelines set by the World Health Organization in 2005.

Cleaner air is something the US now takes for granted – even in the west, where smoke from wildfires is much more common. Kremens, who works at the Chester F. Carlson Center for Imaging Science at the Rochester Institute of Technology, said the US made a decision decades ago to make cleaner air a priority. That meant a big drop in pollution from industrial chimneys and exhaust pipes.

That was quite a change from the years before the federal government had the authority to regulate what America sent into the air. For example, in 1948, over the course of five days in Donora, Pennsylvania, 20 people died and thousands more became ill from air pollution emanating from a factory. It was incidents like this and seminal works like Rachel Carson’s 1962 book “Silent Spring” on the effects of insecticides that propelled a burgeoning environmental movement.

When the first Earth Day took place in April 1970, air pollution was a major problem in most American cities. In 1969, a river in Cleveland carrying industrial runoff caught fire, something that had happened at least a dozen times before. Nearly one in 10 Americans took part in demonstrations or activities on the first Earth Day, and those participants sought something in particular: government intervention.

Those actions have since made such a difference that many of us are now shocked by what poor air quality looks like.

“I’m going to LA tomorrow. It’s not red anymore. It was red when we went there,” Kremens said this week from his office in Rochester, New York. “This is a social decision, in which we will purify the air an
d water.” Kremens pointed to the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act as examples of what can happen if enough attention is paid to an environmental challenge.

This advance is probably why the recent haze that smothered so many eastern cities was so shocking, even to Kremens, who has traveled the world for more than 20 years studying and fighting fires.

“I go outside and it smells like Montana,” he said. “I have so many pictures on my wall that look like now, but they’re from Utah and Montana and places I’ve worked out west.”

I’m looking forward to another set of photos from friends and family in Eastern cities – photos with clear skies.

Read the original article on Business Insider

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