Smoke and haze on June 7 in Carle Place, when fine...

Smoke and haze on June 7 in Carle Place, when fine particulate pollution was the worst since at least 1999. Credit: Howard Schnapp

The plume of acrid smoke from Canadian wildfires that covered Long Island earlier this month resulted in the worst air quality day in more than 20 years, according to data measuring a potentially hazardous pollutant.

Fine particulate pollution known as PM 2.5 pushed Nassau County’s average daily air quality index to 185 on June 7 — at the top end of the “unhealthy” category. On that same day, Suffolk County’s average daily air quality index for PM 2.5 was 184.

The data, which goes back to 1999, shows the only other time that air quality for PM 2.5 on Long Island went into the "unhealthy" category was on July 7, 2002, when levels were 164 in Nassau and 163 in Suffolk. During that time, forest fires in Quebec also were responsible for a plume of smoke over parts of the East Coast.

Experts said the smoky conditions that filled skies with a rust-colored haze and burning scent on June 7 and June 8 were an unusual event and that air quality has been improving for decades.

“We should be really happy that air has been getting steadily better in the United States — it used to be just horrible,” said Paul Shepson, dean of Stony Brook University’s School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences, who added that climate change could make wildfires more common. “On a stagnant sunny summer day, the skyline of some cities looked like it did [on June 7]. That never happens any more, even in Los Angeles.”

A look at the average daily air quality index for PM 2.5 on Long Island since 1999 shows a vast majority with good or moderate air quality rating. In Nassau, 25 days were found to be unhealthy for sensitive groups, such as people with asthma and other respiratory problems, before last week. Those days had an air quality index between 103 and 138.

In Suffolk, during that same time period, there were 13 days found to be unhealthy for sensitive groups with air quality indexes ranging from 104 to 130.

“Having wildfires in Ontario and Quebec with a steady north wind for several days … it’s clearly a rare event for New York City and Long Island,” Shepson said.

The U.S. Department of Environmental Protection sets standards for air quality by measuring the level of several major pollutants in the air, including ground-level ozone, particulate matter, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide.

PM 2.5, known as “fine particles,” are the greatest contributors to negative health, according to Shepson.

“Fine aerosol particles get trapped in the alveoli [tiny air sacs] in your lungs,” he said. “Those deposited particles irritate the tissue in the alveoli, and fluid is secreted in them — contributing to lung disease such as emphysema.”

An air quality index of 0-50 for PM 2.5 is considered “good” air quality, while 51-100 is labeled “moderate.” Once the air quality index exceeds 101, it is considered unhealthy for certain groups up until 150. Anything between 151-200 is “unhealthy,” followed by 201-300 as “very unhealthy.” An air quality index above 301 is deemed “hazardous.”

DEC officials said all air pollution data measurements from June are preliminary until they are certified next year.

The average air quality index on June 8 fell slightly from the day before and was 155 in Nassau and 154 in Suffolk.

But the numbers were even higher at certain time periods on Long Island as the smoke spread and shifted throughout the day on Wednesday. Maps on the EPA's AirNow.gov site showed large swaths in the “very unhealthy” zone across both counties. And a portion of western Nassau joined New York City, which had reached the “hazardous” level in the afternoon.

People were urged to stay inside or wear masks if they had to venture out. Air pollution can be especially dangerous for people with respiratory and cardiovascular issues, said Jaymie Meliker, an environmental epidemiologist and professor of public health at Stony Brook University.

Still, he said it's unclear if there will be any long-term health risks to Long Islanders exposed to a couple days of bad air.

“We know air pollution is a major cause of death around the world,” Meliker said. “But if the question is what a one-time exposure like the one we had will do for long-term health — I don’t think we know the answer to that.”

State officials said there were 147 asthma-related emergency department visits to New York hospitals on June 7, outside of the city. By comparison, there was an average of 80 for the five-day period June 1-6.

A 2014 study of the July 2002 Quebec forest fires found there was an increased rate of hospitalization for respiratory and cardiovascular diagnoses when the smoke plume was present compared with before it arrived. The study concluded "that rapid increases in PM 2.5 concentrations resulting from wildfire smoke can impact the health of elderly populations thousands of kilometers removed from the fires."

A 2016 study concluded that a short-term elevation in PM 2.5 concentrations from forest fire smoke was not followed by increased death rates in New York City and the Greater Boston area.

Shepson credited the Clean Air Act, enacted more than 50 years ago, and its subsequent updates in 1990, with improvements in air quality overall.

“There is still pollution, but it is much better than it used to be,” he said.

Shepson noted while it is unusual for wildfire smoke to come down to New York from Canada, it really depends on the weather.

“If we had the right meteorological conditions, it could happen next week,” he said. “And the frequency of this rare event could well increase because of drought caused by climate change.”

The plume of acrid smoke from Canadian wildfires that covered Long Island earlier this month resulted in the worst air quality day in more than 20 years, according to data measuring a potentially hazardous pollutant.

Fine particulate pollution known as PM 2.5 pushed Nassau County’s average daily air quality index to 185 on June 7 — at the top end of the “unhealthy” category. On that same day, Suffolk County’s average daily air quality index for PM 2.5 was 184.

The data, which goes back to 1999, shows the only other time that air quality for PM 2.5 on Long Island went into the "unhealthy" category was on July 7, 2002, when levels were 164 in Nassau and 163 in Suffolk. During that time, forest fires in Quebec also were responsible for a plume of smoke over parts of the East Coast.

Experts said the smoky conditions that filled skies with a rust-colored haze and burning scent on June 7 and June 8 were an unusual event and that air quality has been improving for decades.

WHAT TO KNOW

  • The plume of smoke that covered Long Island led to the worst air quality in more than 20 years, data tracking a type of pollution shows.
  • The only other time since 1999 that Long Island air quality for fine particles went into the "unhealthy" category was in 2002, when forest fires in Quebec sent a plume of smoke over the East Coast.

  • The June 7 and 8 air was an unusual event and air quality has been improving for decades, experts said.

“We should be really happy that air has been getting steadily better in the United States — it used to be just horrible,” said Paul Shepson, dean of Stony Brook University’s School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences, who added that climate change could make wildfires more common. “On a stagnant sunny summer day, the skyline of some cities looked like it did [on June 7]. That never happens any more, even in Los Angeles.”

A look at the average daily air quality index for PM 2.5 on Long Island since 1999 shows a vast majority with good or moderate air quality rating. In Nassau, 25 days were found to be unhealthy for sensitive groups, such as people with asthma and other respiratory problems, before last week. Those days had an air quality index between 103 and 138.

In Suffolk, during that same time period, there were 13 days found to be unhealthy for sensitive groups with air quality indexes ranging from 104 to 130.

“Having wildfires in Ontario and Quebec with a steady north wind for several days … it’s clearly a rare event for New York City and Long Island,” Shepson said.

The U.S. Department of Environmental Protection sets standards for air quality by measuring the level of several major pollutants in the air, including ground-level ozone, particulate matter, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide.

PM 2.5, known as “fine particles,” are the greatest contributors to negative health, according to Shepson.

“Fine aerosol particles get trapped in the alveoli [tiny air sacs] in your lungs,” he said. “Those deposited particles irritate the tissue in the alveoli, and fluid is secreted in them — contributing to lung disease such as emphysema.”

An air quality index of 0-50 for PM 2.5 is considered “good” air quality, while 51-100 is labeled “moderate.” Once the air quality index exceeds 101, it is considered unhealthy for certain groups up until 150. Anything between 151-200 is “unhealthy,” followed by 201-300 as “very unhealthy.” An air quality index above 301 is deemed “hazardous.”

DEC officials said all air pollution data measurements from June are preliminary until they are certified next year.

Study: Hospitalization increase from 2002 smoke

The average air quality index on June 8 fell slightly from the day before and was 155 in Nassau and 154 in Suffolk.

But the numbers were even higher at certain time periods on Long Island as the smoke spread and shifted throughout the day on Wednesday. Maps on the EPA's AirNow.gov site showed large swaths in the “very unhealthy” zone across both counties. And a portion of western Nassau joined New York City, which had reached the “hazardous” level in the afternoon.

These maps on the EPA's AirNow.gov site for June 7 and June 8 showed large swaths in the “very unhealthy” zone across Suffolk and Nassau counties. A portion of western Nassau County joined New York City at the “hazardous” level during the afternoon of June 7.

People were urged to stay inside or wear masks if they had to venture out. Air pollution can be especially dangerous for people with respiratory and cardiovascular issues, said Jaymie Meliker, an environmental epidemiologist and professor of public health at Stony Brook University.

Still, he said it's unclear if there will be any long-term health risks to Long Islanders exposed to a couple days of bad air.

“We know air pollution is a major cause of death around the world,” Meliker said. “But if the question is what a one-time exposure like the one we had will do for long-term health — I don’t think we know the answer to that.”

State officials said there were 147 asthma-related emergency department visits to New York hospitals on June 7, outside of the city. By comparison, there was an average of 80 for the five-day period June 1-6.

A 2014 study of the July 2002 Quebec forest fires found there was an increased rate of hospitalization for respiratory and cardiovascular diagnoses when the smoke plume was present compared with before it arrived. The study concluded "that rapid increases in PM 2.5 concentrations resulting from wildfire smoke can impact the health of elderly populations thousands of kilometers removed from the fires."

A 2016 study concluded that a short-term elevation in PM 2.5 concentrations from forest fire smoke was not followed by increased death rates in New York City and the Greater Boston area.

Shepson credited the Clean Air Act, enacted more than 50 years ago, and its subsequent updates in 1990, with improvements in air quality overall.

“There is still pollution, but it is much better than it used to be,” he said.

Shepson noted while it is unusual for wildfire smoke to come down to New York from Canada, it really depends on the weather.

“If we had the right meteorological conditions, it could happen next week,” he said. “And the frequency of this rare event could well increase because of drought caused by climate change.”

Newsday Live and nextLI present a conversation with experts on the impact of powerful storms and rising insurance costs on Long Island hosted by NewsdayTV Anchor/Reporter Macy Egeland. The conversation continues on newsday.com/nextli where we invite Long Islanders to share their experiences on this looming crisis of changing weather patterns, flooding, shoreline protection, home buyouts and more to find potential solutions for the region’s future.

Paying the Price: Long Island's stormy future Newsday Live and nextLI present a conversation with experts on the impact of powerful storms and rising insurance costs on Long Island hosted by NewsdayTV Anchor/Reporter Macy Egeland.

Newsday Live and nextLI present a conversation with experts on the impact of powerful storms and rising insurance costs on Long Island hosted by NewsdayTV Anchor/Reporter Macy Egeland. The conversation continues on newsday.com/nextli where we invite Long Islanders to share their experiences on this looming crisis of changing weather patterns, flooding, shoreline protection, home buyouts and more to find potential solutions for the region’s future.

Paying the Price: Long Island's stormy future Newsday Live and nextLI present a conversation with experts on the impact of powerful storms and rising insurance costs on Long Island hosted by NewsdayTV Anchor/Reporter Macy Egeland.

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