Already overburdened by air pollution, Canadian wildfires leave Bronx residents breathless

Masked court officers cross the Grand Concourse at 161st Street

With major highways like the Cross Bronx Expressway and polluting industries like fossil fuel plants and medical waste incinerators, Bronx residents are no strangers to air pollution and the lasting physical and their sometimes often, deadly health outcomes where residents suffer from some of the highest rates of asthma in the nation as a result.

These environmental conditions have led The Bronx to have some of the highest rates of asthma with 9x the national rate and 15x the hospitalization rate in New York City.

At The Hub, by 2PM, conditions had deteriorated with AQI reaching over 400 making NYC the city with the worst air quality in the world.

The culprit in air pollution is PM 2.5, a microscopic particulate matter that, due to its tiny size, can easily get deeply within lungs and, according to the New York State Department of Health, “…can cause short-term health effects such as eye, nose, throat and lung irritation, coughing, sneezing, runny nose and shortness of breath,” all of which can be deadly to individuals already suffering from limited lung capacity due to asthma.

But what has transpired across the city and region since this past Tuesday, due to the out of control Canadian wildfires raging hundreds of miles away, made simple daily tasks a hell on Earth for some of the city’s most vulnerable residents that suffer from respiratory ailments especially within our borough.

The Yankees game yesterday was postponed due to ‘Hazardous’ air quality

On a typical day in The Bronx, the Air Quality Index for PM 2.5, according to the Environmental Protection Agency can range from anywhere in the 30s to 60s with anything up to 50 considered “good” and anything between 51 to 100 considered moderate.

That all changed yesterday by 2PM when the skies darkened dramatically to an unsettling orange hue with very low visibility and the AQI jumping to over 400 into what is considered hazardous, even for those without such complications like asthma or heart disease, making New York City is having the worst air of any major city in the world.

A woman crosses the Grand Concourse coughing due to hazardous air quality despite wearing a mask

I can’t breathe

Across social media, many Bronx residents complained of breathing issues and having to use asthma inhalers more than they’re already used to as well as reporting having headaches, something which such a high PM 2.5 is known to cause according to city and state health departments.

In Norwood, Alexis E. (last name withheld at their request), said that as of today, they haven’t been outside in two days and despite having all of their windows in their apartment closed, their asthma was, “acting up”, and they were feeling weak.

“I have an ongoing headache no matter how much Excedrin I take, it just keeps coming back”, Alexis said.

A street vendor at The Hub struggled to cover his mouth and nose after the city’s AQI hit over 400 and entered ‘hazardous’ territory

She added, “I finally ordered an air purifier that should be here tomorrow but I might have to got to the ER before if this keeps up. I can’t wait for my air purifier to get here. It’s getting hard for me to breathe…I feel crazy lightheaded.”

Meanwhile, another person on our Instagram post commented that they, “…just went up the block and got a headache.”

On a more personal account, on Tuesday I went about my normal routine which includes commuting by bike across The Bronx and into Midtown Manhattan. By the time I arrived in Midtown on Tuesday around 4PM, my eyes were burning.

Yesterday, while documenting the event in The Bronx, I had to err on the side of caution and limit my time outdoors despite wearing my N95 mask after feeling a little fatigued.

Climate change reality

Climate change, often spoken as some dystopian future, became a reality for hundreds of millions of Americans across the region as they grappled with the impacts of the Canadian wildfires.

No strangers to masking, New Yorkers quickly donned their masks as smoke from the Canadian wildfires hundreds of miles away enveloped the city and region.

Drier weather and rising temperatures since the turn of the 21st century has created the conditions for these wildfires to spread and while the western half of the United States have been experiencing such events, this is the first time New York and the Northeast have gotten a look at what the future may hold.

If this is indeed what we have to look forward to, then we have an obligation to protect our most vulnerable populations as best as we can.

We have already seen what having the worst asthma rates did to The Bronx at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic which led to the borough becoming the epicenter with the highest rates of mortality from the disease not just in the city or state but the entire country.

A delivery man rides down the Concourse.

The time to act is now to make sure our most vulnerable are protected before such wildfire events become more commonplace.

Current forecasts is calling for improving air quality by tomorrow and overall clearing by Sunday or Monday.

For many Bronx residents, staying home and indoors despite the hazardous air quality conditions was not a luxury they could afford which was no different than during the height of the pandemic.

In the meantime, pay attention to sites like to monitor air quality in your area and follow the necessary recommended guidance to keep yourselves and your loved ones safe by limiting outdoor activities and keeping your windows closed for the time being.

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Ed García Conde

Ed García Conde is a life-long Bronxite who spends his time documenting the people, places, and things that make the borough a special place in the hopes of dispelling the negative stereotypes associated with The Bronx. His writings are often cited by mainstream media and is often consulted for his expertise on the borough's rich history.