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Even After Smoke Clears, Let’s Keep Talking About Air Quality

Climate activists say hazardous air conditions are not something that will end once the Canadian wildfires are put out. Air pollution from smoke or other sources are a daily struggle for many communities.

people playing tennis under a brown sky
The sun tries to shine as players compete under smoky skies from wildfires in Canada during the NJSIAA Boys Tennis Group Finals at Mercer County Park in West Windsor, NJ on Wednesday, June 7, 2023. (Scott Faytok/TNS)
Balancing a pink paper coffee cup and small gray case containing his lab glasses, Tom Shahinian dismounted the PATH train in downtown Jersey City on Thursday morning wearing a cloth mask he knew was useless.

The 37-year-old dentist from Manhattan didn’t care.

His phone registered an air quality index score of 188 and the little cartoon man on the weather app wore a little cartoon mask.

So he did too.

“I don’t really have a ton of confidence with a level three mask on that particle size, but I’m doing it anyway,” said Shahinian, sharing that he’s only ventured out spottily since Tuesday as index scores peaked at more than double that setting records in some parts of the state.

“I took a picture of the sun yesterday,” he said. “It was pretty obscured and pretty red, but I didn’t go out.”

Shahinian is not alone in taking an abundance of caution since Tuesday as smoke from more than 400 Canadian wildfires has fogged over parts of New Jersey — painting the sky orange, obscuring the view at the Jersey Shore and making for apocalyptic-appearing conditions across the Tri-State area.

Social media has been rife with frightful and filter-free images.

Among them, New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection Commissioner Shawn LaTourette posting hours before his flight out of Newark would send him up and over the plume that had engulfed the Garden State.

“When the smoke clears, may we remember that consistent, concerted climate action is the answer — and choose a better future,” LaTourette wrote on Twitter.

Climate change has made for drier conditions in New Jersey and elsewhere in the U.S. — in part due to less rainfall — translating into a longer wildfire season, scientists and officials say. The negative health impacts of pollution from wildfires or other sources, such as factories or gas-powered cars, have been shown to take a harsher toll on already-overburdened communities.

But the commissioner is not the only one who is wary that such connections will be lost.

Several New Jersey climate activists and groups said the hazardous air that’s traveled hundreds of miles from Canada is a bellwether for more headway needed to improve air quality and better equip residents to handle the array of climate change consequences we’re bound to face. The symptoms of a warming planet have been front and center this week and will only get worse, they’ve said.

But many fear the fever pitch of worry that’s grown is only bound to dissipate in a few days along with the noxious air which may fade Friday and Saturday.

Experts told NJ Advance Media those concerns are not unfounded.

“What we’re seeing is certainly illustrative of what often happens in the country,” Michael Seilback, the American Lung Association national assistant vice president for state public policy, said Thursday.

“When something is right in our face, there’s a collective experience that often includes a call for action, something needs to change,” Seilback said. “And unfortunately, that action doesn’t often sustain the immediate crisis.”

That crisis has meant millions left vulnerable to hazardous air and in some cases a shutdown of services, with a number of schools opting to close or dismiss students early and Gov. Phil Murphy shuttering state offices and asking residents to stay inside.

Daniela Shebitz, a professor and chair of Kean University’s Department of Environmental and Sustainability Sciences, said she’s been flooded with messages from colleagues outside of New Jersey.

Lauren Madden, an education professor at The College of New Jersey, said at least one peer on Wednesday adapted her first-grade lesson plans for the day to teach about what everyone was already talking about — the air quality.

Jefferson Health in Cherry Hill has not seen an influx of patients amid the warnings but Jason Becker, a pulmonologist with the hospital system, said healthy people exposed to the air have been known to experience itchy eyes, a runny nose, coughing, mucus production and possibly chest tightness and shortness of breath.

“Patients with asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and other lung conditions would be maybe getting even more chest tightness, wheezing, difficulty catching your breath (and) more frequent use of inhalers,” said Becker.

Those are issues people in Newark — regularly home to some of the state’s worse air pollution like Camden and Elizabeth — face frequently, said Maria Lopez-Nuñez, deputy director for organizing and advocacy at the Ironbound Community Corporation.

“Being in the Ironbound, we have bad air quality days pretty often in the summer. Honestly, almost every day in the summer,” said Lopez-Nuñez.

For the Newark activist, the Canadian wildfire smoke brings to mind other climate events. Such as in-land flooding from the remnants of Hurricane Ida swallowing entire neighborhoods in 2021 or a string of tornadoes touching down in South Jersey earlier this year.

The link to climate change and action needed on a grander scale to improve conditions and oppose new power plants — bolstered by harrowing snapshots of those and others — can only sustain so long, activists say.

“People seem to really care for a second,” Lopez-Nuñez said.

That shouldn’t be the case, implored Ed Potosnak, the executive director of nonprofit New Jersey League of Conservation Voters.

“Similarly after Hurricane Sandy, we talked a lot about what got us to the place where we could have a superstorm like that. What climate change looks like and how fossil fuels are leading to more intensive frequent storms,” said Potosnak. “The extremes, right? Really wet, really dry, really hot, really cold, fires that are way off the charts, air quality like New Jersey has never seen.”

Potosnak hopes the attention climate policies are getting help make a case in New Jersey for reaching 100 percent clean energy by 2035, expand the use of electric vehicles and hold companies that pollute overburdened communities accountable.

“I’m getting screenshots from all of my contacts saying, ‘Oh, my gosh, I can’t believe how scary this is,’” said Shebitz. “I hope that after the smoke subsides that people do continue to monitor their air quality, and that they do continue to understand that what happens in one part of the globe is going to directly or indirectly affect them and their health.”

Madden, a professor at TCNJ, agreed. She noted that fighting for climate change could be bolstered even further by more groups in the medical community becoming part of change, seen to be effective in the Flint, Michigan, water crisis.

But Shebitz, Potosnak and Madden are all mindful of the novelty of the Canadian wildfire smoke’s impacts here.

Mark Zondlo, an air quality expert and professor of civil and environmental engineering at Princeton University, understands the sentiment. Even he is somewhat hesitant to use the term “unique” when describing the aftermath of the Canadian wildfires and how it could stifle progress.

“There’s always some concern about that, especially if you say, ‘Well, this was unprecedented, unique.’ But here’s the thing, I think we’re going to see an awful lot of these hazy, shiny, yucky days in New Jersey this summer more so than normally,” said Zondlo.

Why? The Canadian wildfires will keep burning and more are bound to happen either there or in other parts of the country.

Such incidents — like what we saw this week — are even possible here, with New Jersey experiencing about 1,500 wildfires that damage or level 7,000 acres of state forests each year, according to the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (DEP).

If it wasn’t for the current dry conditions here, state officials said, we may have sent help to Canada like we’re doing in Michigan where two New Jersey Forest Fire Service trucks were dispatched to respond to emergencies.

“The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection extends its thoughts and support to the numerous firefighters who are bravely working around the clock to contain the multiple wildfires burning in Canada, to protect lives and property. Due to New Jersey’s current dry conditions, the DEP’s Forest Fire Service is being cautious with sending resources out of state,” said Caryn Shinske, a department spokesperson.

Even so, state leaders say they are thinking about the Canadian wildfire incident and its effects here seriously, Murphy said during a press conference Thursday morning.

The governor, a Democrat, said this “hardens” his administration’s efforts to combat climate change.

”Climate change is here,” Murphy said. “Unfortunately, this is our new reality.”

©2023 Advance Local Media LLC. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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