Skip to contents

Ominous Orange Skies Have Subsided – but Threat of Poor Air Quality Isn’t Over

As scientists predict the Northeast and Midwest could turn into wildfire hotbeds, an expert explains why we need to be more vigilant.

The Triborough Bridge along the East River in New York City was enveloped in an orange blanket of air pollution earlier this month, caused by wildfires in Canada. (James Andrews/iStock via Getty Images)

Orange skies in the Northeast and Midwest from the fires burning in Canada may have subsided for now — but the threat of poor air quality is far from over. 

Just this past weekend, New York City was again under an air quality alert because of wildfire smoke. As the region experiences drier springs and warmer summers, scientists predict the Northeast will soon turn into a wildfire hotbed.  

In the aftermath of these past few weeks, the city’s Black and brown communities have been most susceptible to breathing issues, visiting local hospitals with asthma flare-ups at the highest rate

So how can people prepare for and protect themselves during events like this? Will there be community networks in place to support people during these disasters? How will low-income, housing-insecure, and Black folks access the resources they deserve? Will mental health services be available in the aftermath? These were all questions that crossed Vickie Mays’ mind as she watched news reports when New York City’s skyline disappeared behind a cloud of grainy orange haze earlier this month. 

Read More: Air Pollution and Its Impact on Black Communities, Explained

Mays, a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles whose research focuses on the mental and physical health disparities affecting racial minorities, says it’s so important for Black communities to be more vigilant. For millions who’ve watched fires spread across the West for years but have primarily evaded this climate impact themselves, it’s a new reality.

While the federal government has recently moved to limit particulate matter pollution — the same pollutant emitted during wildfires — this source of pollution is particularly tricky to address because it cannot be regulated like other man-made pollution sources. It is also harder to gauge just how much pollution is being emitted during these events, making it harder to prepare. And studies have shown that oftentimes during high pollution days, the air inside a building can actually be worse than outside, especially in Black and low-income communities where homes are older. 

Capital B caught up with Mays to understand how the visually apocalyptic nature of the recent wildfires, coupled with disruptions in day-to-day life, threaten to create mental health struggles — and how you can better prepare.  

Capital B: Are there specific ways smoke and pollution are affecting people’s mental and physical health? 

Vickie Mays: It really depends. Like, for example, if you were talking to someone who is in Northern California, and they’ve experienced a wildfire before, it could trigger and bring back those experiences. So, you know, people have relatives and loved ones experiencing this as well. 

It has left us in a situation again where people have to worry about their health. So people were talking about having to get masks again. And so it’s kind of like, “Oh, we had these masks, during COVID, now we have these masks again.” It has made people down and out again. We’re being told don’t go outside, be careful what you’re breathing, so it’s reminiscent of 2020. And remember, because we don’t know which way the wind is, how long these fires are burning, so for many people, it has turned into “how long am I going to be up in his house again?”

How do these particular stressors impact Black Americans?

We have to look across the generations, because I think it will have different meanings for different people. For some people it will be if you have asthma, and the deep trauma of having an asthma attack triggered because of this air pollution; the emergency room visits. And we know Black folks, because of health disparities, have a high rate of asthma, so that is a totally different and unique worry. You may have the elderly worrying about being out and about, and then being forced to be inside, the worry about mental and physical decline there. 

In the Black community, we have to recognize that climate makes health disparities. So we can see this and say, wildfires are a big problem for us. So now we got to worry, and are we prepared? Are we going to be ensuring that those people who need a new mask have gotten them? Is it going to make us want to start addressing the climate disparities because it just reminds us of who’s the most vulnerable?

But there were, I’d bet, a lot of people in the Black community who are also thinking about the economic challenges of this. They can’t go out to work, doing more working-class jobs like construction. There is a lot to consider. 

When we’re talking about the different ways that this disrupts daily life, whether it be someone’s job or health, are there mitigation efforts? 

[The U.S. doesn’t] have plans. Now, we know that we weren’t prepared for this first bout of smoke. I didn’t see a public health system in place; direct calls to shelter in place, public places for people to escape the smoke, HEPA filter distributions. So that worries me that mitigation efforts for people to respond to this are not in place.  

There needs to be systems in place. We can do things like help bring people groceries, distributing masks, and filters. I just don’t think that this is the last time we’re going to have this situation happen. We should have learned a lot from this and from COVID. I’m most fearful of food scarcity during disasters like this, which is one of the most significant outcomes we saw for the Black population during COVID.

You outlined the gaps that have been left open at the local, state, and federal level. What are the different ways that folks in their communities can prepare for these kinds of events?                                                                                                                                                     

You need to be able to respond and take care of yourself, because you don’t know exactly when help is going to come. So I would say that the city of Los Angeles, for example, has neighborhood councils. So we need to think about lowering the level of these responses, and helping people to think about, “OK, if I am in a neighborhood, I know exactly where to go in times of disaster.” 

We need to know who needs food on an ongoing basis in our community, who is willing and able to check on certain people, and volunteer to do certain things.

So for example, if I own a business in the neighborhood and I’m considered part of the neighborhood response, that I can have, you know, instead of trying to do x, I can have 50 people coming in my store and making sure that there’s fresh air for them. Or, you know, making sure that if I’m a grocer, I see that there’s five neighborhood kids who will deliver on a bicycle. And we’ve identified who those households are, in which they might need to get groceries delivered to them. But that’s planning at a neighborhood level. And I think that we have to stop depending upon the state and the county. And we have to start realizing that we need to survey what we have in our neighborhoods, and figure out who can volunteer to do what, where are places we can go, and who has the capacity to provide resources.

About the mental health part, we need to be able to identify those areas and people who want to be trained in psychology and some level of psychological intervention. They could be the organizer of rituals, and the opportunity to invite people together for stress reduction, offering a sense of neighborhood cohesiveness. Those are the kinds of things that actually bring people together, and some of these are the lasting relationships that make the next incident feel less challenging.