• Wed. Oct 4th, 2023


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Poor Air Quality Is Routine in Many Parts of the World

The hazy plume from the Canadian wildfires has given people in the northeastern United States a sense of what it is like in parts of the world where a struggle with the quality of their air is more routine.

On Wednesday, New York City briefly became one of the cities with the worst air on the planet, eclipsing some of the poorest nations that have suffered from pollution for decades. Air pollution was responsible for 6.67 million deaths worldwide in 2019, mostly in North Africa, the Middle East, South Asia and East Asia.

Air pollution mainly comes from burning things: coal in power plants, gasoline in cars, chemicals in factories, or wood and whatever else ignites in wildfires. The particles are too small for the eye to see, but in high concentrations they cast a haze in the sky.

In China, cities have been choked by dusty, toxic air since the 1980s. Skies have become clearer since the country clamped down on factories, forced old vehicles off roads and shifted from coal to natural gas 10 years ago. But poor air quality has lingered, worsened by winds carrying soil and sand from the Gobi Desert over northern China, including Beijing.

India, too, has been enveloped by thick canopies of smog for decades, especially in the north. The country’s democratic system has been less successful than China’s authoritarian government in curbing industrial pollution. New Delhi, the capital, still experiences weeks of toxic haze that feels bitter on the tongue.

Wildfires have also covered many parts of the Earth in smoke. Climate change has brought extraordinary heat to eastern Siberia, letting wildfires scorch areas of forest and tundra larger than the size of Florida in recent years. Forest fires also blazed across towns in Chile, which has experienced prolonged drought and high temperatures.

Thick blankets of smoke from wildfires descend over cities on the West Coast every year, and more orange skies are expected to be caused by wildfires in the United States and around the world as climate change intensifies what the United Nations has called a “global wildfire crisis.”

A suspension bridge is shrouded in orange haze. A man in the foreground stands at an overlook, facing away from the camera.
The George Washington Bridge seen from Fort Lee, N.J., on Wednesday.Seth Wenig/Associated Press