NYS Air Quality: Why Has It Been so Bad?

By Maria DeKoning

nyc during air quality alert

Hot and humid summer days have more of an effect on us than just sweaty clothes and a desire to stay cool. The hot days have sparked an increased amount of poor air quality advisories throughout the state. With the effects of climate change knocking on our doors more persistently in recent years, poor air quality has spiked and become a common issue during the summer months. Read on to understand what causes bad air quality and how it can affect your health.

Areas Affected the Most

At some point this summer, all areas of NYS have experienced poor air quality due to wildfires burning throughout the country. Historically, the Metro area, Long Island, and Lower Hudson Region tend to experience the most amount of air pollution in the state, and some of the worst in the country.

NYC is one of the most prosperous cities in the world with a very high population density and travelers alike. It calls people from around the globe with the promise of “The American Dream.” Sheer population, traffic, industry, and crowded streets all contribute to pollutants in the air.

In the Long Island and Lower Hudson regions of the state, there are high amounts of traffic during peak times and heavy industry that contribute to poor air quality.

NYS Smoky Skies

smoky skies in nyc very hazy

For the first time in roughly ten years, NYS issued a statewide air quality warning for PM2.5 on July 20, 2021. Red sunsets and smoky skies were generated from wildfires in Canada, north of Minnesota. The particulate matter traveled southeast across the Great Lakes with the wind and created hazy conditions, limiting visibility to as low as 2.5 miles.

This was not the first summer that air quality throughout the US has been affected by raging wildfires. The smoke from previous fires on the west coast typically blows east but usually disperses before it hits New York. Typically, the smoke travels at a high enough altitude for it to remain unseen by the people on the ground. Recently, NASA has collected data that shows a large portion of the smoke traveling along the ground causing spikes in unhealthy air quality in the NYC Metro area. When an “Unhealthy” level is reached, everyone is susceptible to experiencing negative health effects.

The main pollutants in wildfire smoke are particle pollution and carbon monoxide. NYS experiences wildfires every year and 95% of them begin from human activities.

The Biden Administration created a White House Fact Sheet on June 20, 2021, that addresses the growing threat from wildfires. It’s estimated that since the year 2015, the United States experiences 100 more wildfires per year than the year previous. This is a rate that cannot continue, it must be mitigated "to eliminate damage to natural resources, the devastation of communities, and loss of human life."

The EPA collected a group of scientists, public health officials, building owners, and more to research indoor air cleaners and address the threats smoke implements upon public health. The main goal is to target PM2.5 and gain knowledge on how to reduce smoke indoors. We must face this problem head-on to eliminate the tragic consequences of wildfires around the globe.

Pollutants in the Air

The EPA identifies six main air pollutants that have the highest effect on human health and are the most common in the atmosphere. They are listed here, along with their possible health risks.

1. Carbon Monoxide (CO)

CO is a colorless, odorless gas that becomes harmful when inhaled in large quantities. It gets into the air when something is burned. Common sources of CO are motor vehicles and machinery that burn fossil fuels.

Health Risks of CO

Exposure to high amounts of carbon monoxide reduces the amount of oxygen in the blood that can be transported to organs such as the heart and brain.

  • Exposure to carbon monoxide indoors will cause dizziness, confusion, and in severe cases death.
  • Exposure outdoors can cause people with pre-existing heart problems to be at risk and reduce their ability to get oxygenated blood to their hearts in situations where oxygen is needed more than usual.
  • Elevated stress and exercise outdoors can cause vulnerable populations to experience chest pain or angina when exposed to high amounts of CO in the short term.

2. Lead

air plane emitting pollution into sky

Lead in the air has decreased significantly in the past 10 years due to EPA restrictions and the removal of lead in motor vehicle gasoline.

Air pollution from lead is caused by ore and metal processing, piston-engine aircrafts that operate on leaded aviation fuel, waste incinerators, and lead-acid battery manufacturing. The highest amounts of lead pollution sources are from lead-smelters. Although lead pollutants in the air have decreased in recent years, it does not mean that all risks of lead poisoning are diminished.

The two most common ways for lead to enter the body are through inhalation and ingestion. Lead-contaminated water that travels through lead pipes and food. Those with a high seafood concentration in their diet are at risk of high levels of lead mercury and DDE in their blood. The two fish with the highest amount of lead are squid and blue mussels.

Health Risks of Lead Exposure

Lead exposure can be very dangerous. After exposure, lead distributes throughout the body and accumulates in the teeth and bones. It can affect the nervous system, functioning of the kidney, immune, reproductive and developmental systems.

High enough lead concentrations can affect the carrying capacity of the blood. The most vulnerable populations to lead poisoning are infants and young children. Since their brains are not fully developed yet, they are at risk of learning deficits, behavioral problems, and a lowered IQ after exposure.

3. Nitrogen Dioxide (NO2)

NO2 is a highly reactive gas in the air that is caused by the burning of fuel, emissions of motor vehicles, power plants, and off-road equipment.

Health Risks of Nitrogen Dioxide

Breathing in air with high amounts of NO2 can irritate the airways in the respiratory system.

  • Short-term exposure can aggregate existing respiratory conditions, lead to difficulty breathing, coughing, or wheezing.
  • Exposure over the long term can cause asthma and more susceptibility to respiratory infections.

People who should be weary of high amounts of NO2 in the air are those with asthma, young children, and the elderly.

4. Ozone

There are two different types of ozone in the air and one is necessary for the survival of humankind and the other is a pollutant that disrupts our planet.

  • Good ozone exists in the stratosphere layer of the atmosphere and acts as a protective barrier between harmful ultraviolet rays and Earth’s surface.
  • Bad ozone exists on the ground level. It is caused by a chemical reaction when NOx and VOCs react with sunlight. These pollutants originate from cars, power plants, industrial boilers, refineries, and chemical plants. Ozone pollution is most likely to happen in the summertime when it is hot and sunny.

NYS and Nearby States Affected by Ozone

green vegetables in basket

Ozone pollution is not only a risk to human health. It is also the number one most potent air pollutant to plants. It can enter sensitive plant species through its stomata which are the tiny open pores in their leaves. Ozone can destroy the exposed tissues and make them prone to diseases and insect damage.

Long Island and Connecticut experienced high amounts of ozone damage to cucumber, zucchini, and squash plants this summer. The damage causes yellow spotting on the leaves and those that are dead or damaged. The yellow and white spots will indicate a decrease in growth, production of fruit and may even kill the plant.

The NYS DEC identified possible threats to different tree species as well. The DEC lists 140 different species that can be affected by high ozone exposure. Similar to its effects on plants, the pollutant causes visible leaf injuries such as bleaching or dark stripping, reduction of growth and yield, and susceptibility to damage from diseases or insects. Reduced biodiversity, changes in habitat, water, or nutrient systems are also concerns for ground-level ozone pollutants.

Health Risks of Ozone Exposure

Ozone exposure has the potential to cause a sore throat, coughing, difficulty breathing, inflammation of airways, and aggravation of existing lung diseases such as emphysema and chronic bronchitis. It can also increase the frequency of asthma attacks.

Populations that should be cautious on hot, summer days with high ozone concentrations are as follows:

  • People with asthma
  • Children
  • Older adults
  • Those who work outside for extended periods of time

5. Particulate Matter (PM)

Also known as particle pollution, PM is a mixture of solid particles and liquid droplets found in the air. These particles vary and could include dust, dirt, soot, and smoke. Sources of particle pollution are construction, unpaved roads, fields, smokestacks, and fires.

Particle Pollution can come in Two Sizes:

  • PM10 are larger particles that are 10 micrometers and smaller and can be inhaled.
  • PM2.5 are particles 2.5 micrometers and smaller that are difficult to identify and can easily be inhaled.

Health Risks from PM Exposure

Health risks associated with particle pollution are linked with the size of the particles that are inhaled. The smaller the particle is, the more likely for it to get into the lungs and potentially even the bloodstream. Exposure has a direct effect on the lungs and heart.

The biggest concerns linked with exposure are nonfatal heart attacks, irregular heartbeat, and even premature death.

Vulnerable populations to particle pollution include people with heart or lung disease, children, and older adults.

6. Sulfur Dioxide (SO2)

SO2 pollutants come from burning fossil fuels in power plants, industry actions, extracting metal from ore, volcanoes, locomotives, ships, and heavy equipment that have a high sulfur content.

Health Effects from Sulfur Dioxide Pollution

Similar to the risks of the other pollutants, short-term exposure to SO2 can irritate the lungs and cause difficulty breathing. People who should understand the risks of SO2 exposure are children and older adults as well as those with existing respiratory conditions.

Ways to Mitigate Poor Air Quality

kid sitting on park bench looking at mountains

Poor air quality is a big problem affecting our country today, and it is only getting worse. Nothing in our world is going to change unless we all take small steps into creating better habits that better benefit our planet. Some ways that you can make a change and decrease air pollution are as follows:

  • Conserve the amount of energy used at your home and work
  • Buy home appliances that are labeled ENERGY STAR
  • Use public transportation, bike, carpool, or walk whenever possible
  • Keep the engines on cars, boats, and other engines tuned
  • Properly inflate your tires
  • Use paints and cleaning products that are environmentally safe
  • Use gas logs instead of wood
  • Mulch or compost your leaves and yard waste

When High Ozone Days are Reported:

  • Carpool to work or choose public transportation
  • Reduce trips on roads by combining errands or walking
  • Avoid idling of your vehicle
  • Get gas or refuel in the evening when the temperature has decreased
  • Set air conditioners at 78 degrees to conserve electricity
  • Put off lawn chores that require gasoline-powered equipment for another day or wait until the evening.

Galli Engineering

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At Galli Engineering, we know and understand the problems of the day and tackle them head-on. Whether it is air pollution, Brownfield remediation, or energy conservation our professionals are trained in environmental specialties.

Galli Engineering assists its clients in reducing the environmental impacts of their products, activities, and services. They specialize in sustainable and renewable energy, and design so that communities, corporations, and governments can be environmental stewards and reduce global impacts.

Some of the solutions that Galli provides are renewable or conservation energy solutions that include solar photovoltaics, solar thermal technology, geothermal HVAC supplementation, wind turbine electrical production, rainwater collection and utilization, greywater reclamation, building automation, and daylighting and passive solar irradiation capture.

Article by Maria DeKoning
Maria DeKoning is the Social Media Coordinator and a Junior Environmental Scientist at Galli Engineering. When she is not writing blog posts for the company, she assists with environmental work such as Environmental Assessments and maintenance of the Galli social media pages. She enjoys researching new environmental topics and technology and making them known to the public through her writing.

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