Pedestrians on 149th Street, under a sky turned orange from wildfires in eastern Canada, on June 7. Photo: Andrew Ancheta.

Skies above New York turned orange on Wednesday, and public health authorities warned residents to wear masks and avoid outside activities. But in the South Bronx–where asthma rates are already the city’s highest due to urban pollution–it was hard to detect much difference, other than the strangely colored sky. 

By Wednesday afternoon, New York City had an Air Quality Index of 264—a level categorized as “Very Unhealthy” and worse than any other major city, including Delhi, Lahore, and Detroit. And the air in the Bronx was even worse, with an AQI ranging from 277 to 292  according to Google Maps. 

The tawny gloom was caused by drifting smoke from Canada, where climate change has stoked a hotter-than-usual wildfire season. The Department of Environmental Conservation has issued a health advisory for all five boroughs. Schools kept children inside, several Broadway performances were canceled, and some libraries were closed. 

But near the Hub on 149th Street, unmasked crowds continued to bustle, and street sellers continued peddling fruit, handbags, and jewelry despite the ochre clouds overhead. 

“It hasn’t affected me, you know?” said Oolaine Forrest, one of four ministers who took turns preaching from the Bible beneath the apocalyptic sky. “I’m here preaching the gospel and I think God has been keeping me, so the power of God has been masking me.”

The South Bronx has been dubbed “asthma alley” for the high rates of respiratory illnesses due to traffic and pollution. 229 out of every 10,000 Bronx residents had to visit the emergency room due to asthma in 2021,  according to a report by the state Department of Health. That’s about twice as high as the average figure for the city. 

“People come out regardless, but it’s not really affecting me like that,” said Idrissa Jones, who was selling phone cases from a small table on the sidewalk. Although traffic was still busy, he says that most people are aware of the health concerns. “I’ve seen more people wearing masks than there were yesterday,” he added. 

Others were more concerned. Henry Rodriguez, a security officer at Lincoln Medical Center, said that he was worried about the declining air quality, even if the hospital did not see any obvious increase in visits. 

“As soon as I got the alert I was very terrified of what’s going to happen,” he said.“I can’t really breathe in smoke because I’m very asthmatic.”

Air quality has since improved, but was still at an “Unhealthy” level as of Thursday morning. In a tweet on Wednesday, Governor Hochul pledged to distribute up to a million N95 masks to residents from state and federal stockpiles in order to alleviate the health consequences. 

The City of New York recommends the following steps to limit health risks as a result of the reduced air quality:

  • All New Yorkers should limit outdoor activity and stay inside when possible. People with heart or breathing problems and children and older adults may be especially sensitive and should avoid outdoor activities during this time.
  • Older adults and those with heart or breathing problems, or those who have to be outside, should wear a high-quality N95 or KN95 mask, such as the kind that used during Covid.

Additional recommendations from the U.S Environmental Protection Agency can be found online.

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