Episode 84 Transcript: SMOKE IN THE AIR
CLARICE: Hello, everybody. And welcome to this week’s episode of Environmentally Speaking.
MARISA: Hi, everybody. I’m Marisa Desautel, an environmental attorney in Rhode Island and Massachusetts.
CLARICE: And I’m Clarice coming in with this week’s topics, questions, comments. And this week’s topic is very timely, very recent.
MARISA: It’s something that everybody is talking about.
MARISA: Go ahead.
CLARICE: We are talking about New York City’s air pollution. So if you are listening to the backlogs, if you are kind of going back, if you’re a later listener, we are recording on June 9th. We are talking about how New York’s air pollution right now is — and, actually, let me pull up the real-time air quality. It is still — oh, today is moderate.
CLARICE: Last night it was unhealthy, but recently New York has been described as very orange, kind of that haze, so we’re going to talk about that today.
MARISA: Speaking of weather alerts, here in Rhode Island the air quality alert associated with the weather app on my iPhone indicates that there is a severe weather alert, air quality alert in effect until midnight tonight. These alerts come from the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management. They have an Office of Air Resources and they also report on — obviously on air quality. So the particular issues in Rhode Island are fine particulates. An air quality action day means that fine particulates within the region may approach or exceed unhealthy standards, so that’s what we’re dealing with here in Rhode Island and it sounds like what’s happening in New York is that situation that I just talked about times ten.
CLARICE: At least.
MARISA: So what does this mean? What are fine particulates and why is it so bad for humans in public health?
CLARICE: Yeah. And more specifically, how did this happen?
MARISA: That’s funny. I didn’t even think that we should start with the cause because I just kind of assumed that everyone knew at this point, but it’s from wildfires in Canada, Nova Scotia. I forget the other area.
MARISA: Oh, is it Quebec?
CLARICE: Yeah. Quebec, Ottawa, and I believe Toronto. And what was it. I was looking at an article. Bear with me, folks. I want to make sure I have the numbers right. It looks like as of — like I said, today we’re recording on the 9th of June. This article had cited that on Tuesday June 6th they had recorded 152 wildfires and of that 152, 114 were classified as out of control.
[0:03:18] MARISA: I’d say so.
CLARICE: I don’t know what that means.
MARISA: I think that’s a good designation.
CLARICE: But that was a frightening number, so Canada was saying that there were about 200 additional, I guess, firefighting assistants were coming in from the States, were coming in from, I believe, France.
CLARICE: They were in talks with Chile, Portugal. I forget. There was another country to send more aid over to help get the situation under control, so it’s a really serious problem. These aren’t small wildfires. These are massive situations. I mean, those massive fires, obviously, is coming up into their air and that’s coming down and affecting, obviously, New York.
MARISA: And it is affecting our region, as well. Obviously we’re not orange here, but the air quality alerts from DEM have been issued every single day since, I think — I think I first saw the — the notification a week ago today.
CLARICE: And you can see it even in our sunsets. There have been hazier days more than normal. Our sunsets have gotten a little bit more vibrant. You can start to see the effects of it down here, too.
MARISA: I went out to dinner last night and was speaking with the owner of the restaurant who is also a friend of mine. Ida’s Restaurant in Middletown, Rhode Island, an excellent place to go, by the way. But they were saying that as a result of New York being orange the restaurant was seeing a massive increase in folks coming to dine there that had left New York and were either staying at a hotel or with family in Newport, Middletown, and Portsmouth to get out of the city. And they were also seeing a major increase in takeout orders. They said it was very reminiscent of what happened when the COVID-19 quarantine went into effect. A lot of people fled New York and New Jersey and ended up coming down this way.
CLARICE: Yeah. In a lot of the articles that I was looking at and I’m sure for you, too, you kept seeing things like tiny particulate matter known as PM 2.5. What is PM 2.5? What does the 2.5 even mean?
[0:05:58] MARISA: The PM stands for particulate matter, of course, and the 2.5 is an indication of the size of the particulate matter. I think they’re expressed in micrograms, so it’s just the fine particulates you can’t necessarily even see. And depending on the side, you can sometimes only see them under a microscope. So the way that they are able to develop that measurement is generally through sampling of air and they take that sample, take it into a lab and then they’re able to provide a pretty detailed directive on what the actual criteria are and the air quality.
So once air quality gets to a certain status depending on the size and quantity of the particulate matter, it’s really unhealthy for humans and animals to breathe in those fine particulates because they can interrupt your natural ability for your lungs to process the air. And if you’ve got a preexisting health condition, it will exacerbate those conditions. What we’re seeing now is akin to the type of concerns about public health due to inhaling something like the COVID-19 virus where people were wearing masks because you needed a filtration system to prevent ingestion of COVID-19 the virus. With this situation it’s the particulate matter that’s suspended in the air, so people are wearing masks again.
CLARICE: And I don’t know. We’ve certainly seen tons of these photos and we keep referencing that New York is, at this point, orange, but if you folks haven’t seen photos of it it really looks like there’s some sort of weird Snapchat or like Instagram filter.
MARISA: A filter.
CLARICE: It is orange.
CLARICE: Everything has an orange hue over it.
MARISA: Is it bright orange, or is it like a yellowy orange? Are we talking Donald Trump orange?
CLARICE: It looks tangerine. It looks very —
CLARICE: Yeah. Almost like a ‘70s retro orange to me.
CLARICE: I’ve got friends who live out in New York. Some of them have sent me photos. I’m going to ask permission to see if we can share them on our Instagram to give people a better idea of what some of these — and none of these — like I said, none of these have any additional editing on them. This is just what outside looks like right now.
MARISA: Raw footage.
CLARICE: Yeah. It’s razee.
MARISA: When is this air quality alert situation supposed to be over? Do we know?
[0:09:05] CLARICE: Out of everything I’ve read, nobody is saying anything. Like I said, last night when I checked at 10:00 — I checked at 10:00 at night. It was saying unhealthy, so there are different — let’s back up a little bit. There are different levels of the air quality index and each one has a different color. There’s hazardous which is sort of a dark maroon color. And in parentheses there’s the number 300 plus and that goes back to what you just explained which was the PM 2.5. And then it goes the second worst which is very unhealthy which is this sort of violet color 201 to 300. Unhealthy is in red 151 to 200. Unhealthy for sensitive groups which is orange 101 to 150. Moderate is in yellow 51 to 100 and then good is in green 0 to 50. Last night at 10:00 p.m. when I checked it was unhealthy in the red, so that’s that 151 to 200. And I’ve got it open right now. We’re in the yellow 51 to 100, so that’s already a decent jump.
MARISA: I wonder if — I mean, that has to be a function of the first responders providing mutual aid to Canada because it’s not like — science 101, duh, fire is not going to go out by itself unless it runs out of oxygen or it runs out of something that it can burn through and in this case there’s plenty of forest and there’s plenty of oxygen in Canada, so without an ability to put out all of the wildfires those numbers would either remain the same or increase. Again, just a supposition here but it’s got to be — the numbers coming down have to be related to the fires being extinguished.
CLARICE: Absolutely. And I’m also wondering if there’s, you know, rainy weather on the forecast if that’s going to kind of help weigh that down, bring those particulates down just by sheer mass of humidity is going to help it out. But it looks like it’s turning around. I’m also seeing this sort of scale move as we’re talking. It’s going from like — you know, when we started recording it was at 60. Right now it’s at 64, so who knows how it’s going to fluctuate. I haven’t seen any article give a projection on when they expect it to be back to normal. A couple articles mentioned saying that New York hasn’t yet been put on the list for the worst air quality in the world yet and they were wondering why that hasn’t happened yet.
[0:12:09] MARISA: China.
CLARICE: No. Delhi.
CLARICE: And I’m wondering what the criteria for that is. Is it over a certain amount of days? Does it need to be consistent? You know, has New York not been put on this list because this is an isolated incident? But a lot of articles were shocked that New York hasn’t been sort of invited onto this list.
MARISA: Well, and I wonder, too, if the current status is being compared to what New York’s baseline air quality is and if that’s a level of measurement because Manhattan is disgusting, so maybe that kind of factors in.
CLARICE: But typically New York has been hovering around 50 in recent years.
CLARICE: So despite New York not being known for its cleanliness, their air quality in recent years has been in the, quote, unquote, green, in the good.
CLARICE: So, yeah, people are clamoring for this event to move New York onto the bad list.
MARISA: People are clamoring.
CLARICE: I’m not quite sure why. Yeah.
MARISA: There’s a clamor going on with this?
CLARICE: I saw it in a couple articles. I’m not sure why.
MARISA: There’s so many other things to clamor about. If I were to clamor, it wouldn’t be about this.
CLARICE: It was a weird thing. I kept seeing over and over again —
MARISA: When’s the last time I clamored.
CLARICE: Oh, I know.
MARISA: It was yesterday, actually. No. It was yesterday at work, but it wasn’t about New York’s air quality. One article that I read suggested that the issues with local air quality would continue at least through Thursday which is obvious because that was yesterday and then could extend into the weekend. We’ve been getting a lot of hazy overcast, a little bit of rain here and there but no significant rainfall and I wonder how much of that is a result of the air flow from Canada. And so we can expect that it will — it will go through at least this weekend and then I guess we’ll have to see what happens next week.
CLARICE: Yeah. Something to keep an eye out for. Yeah. So like I was saying, there is a real-time watch index that you can keep an eye on if it’s of interest. It doesn’t hurt to check on it every once in a while. It’s no fish doorbell. It’s not going to be nearly as exciting.
MARISA: I love that fish doorbell.
CLARICE: I get a kick out of that. But, yeah, hopefully New York lightens up, at least goes from that tangerine hue to yellow, kind of goes into the sepia tones, brightens up in some way.
[0:15:07] MARISA: Yeah. All right. Well, here we are talking about air quality. I would say the Clean Air Act is a — I’m such a nerd. The Clean Air Act is a fascinating statute in how it interprets and regulates what outside sources contribute to local air quality. So as everyone knows, things like fish and air don’t recognize state jurisdictional boundaries and territories, so a lot of times there are activities that occurred within your state or your area that are a result of something else going on outside of your area and air quality is one of them. You’re laughing at me.
CLARICE: I am. If you want to be a nerd and give it a read, let us know your thoughts.
MARISA: Sit down with the Clean Air Act and let me know if you have any questions.
CLARICE: If you’re a New Yorker and you’re stuck inside, read the Clean Air Act.
MARISA: That’s right. Yeah.
CLARICE: Oh, that’s a bitter activity. Don’t do that.
MARISA: Don’t do that. Maybe just have a martini.
CLARICE: Yeah. Reach out to us. We are on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter. You can watch videos on YouTube. You can send us an e-mail, Help@DesautelESQ.com. No. That was wrong.
MARISA: Wait. The e-mail.
CLARICE: The e-mail.
CLARICE: Yeah. Oh, I did get it right. It didn’t sound right.
MARISA: What just happened? Did your brain have a spasm?
CLARICE: Uh-huh. Yeah. You know where to find us. Have a great weekend. I’m going to blame the haze.
MARISA: Stop breathing. That’s the solution. Bye, everybody.