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The New York city skyline and east river shrouded in smoke, in Brooklyn on June 6, 2023. Smoke from the hundreds of wildfires blazing in eastern Canada has drifted south. Image Credit: AFP

New York: New York City officials on Tuesday night urged at-risk residents to wear high-quality masks outdoors as smoke blankets the city.

“If you are an older adult or have heart or breathing problems and need to be outside, wear a high-quality mask (e.g. N95 or KN95),” the office of Mayor Eric Adams said in a statement late Tuesday. The city also urged New Yorkers to stay indoors when possible.

“Currently, we are taking precautions out of an abundance of caution to protect New Yorkers’ health until we are able to get a better sense of future air quality reports,” Adams said.

New York City’s air quality early Wednesday was considered “very unhealthy,” according to the US Air Quality Index maintained by the US Environmental Protection Agency. The city’s AQI was 226 as of 12am, a level that the EPA characterizes as Code Purple and signifies an elevated health risk for everyone.

Smoke from Canadian wildfires is expected to engulf the city for several days, with officials warning that while conditions could improve Wednesday morning, they are expected to worsen by the afternoon and evening.

New York City officials on Tuesday night said that it was the first time in recent years - and possibly in decades - that the city was recommending that residents wear masks outdoors to protect against poor air quality.

The air quality in New York City is “historically bad,” Adams press secretary Fabien Levy said in a text message.

Officials also continue to encourage vulnerable residents to wear high-quality masks in crowded indoor spaces as a form of protection against COVID-19, although New York City has largely reduced its masking messages amid frustration with pandemic precautions. The city rolled back its indoor mask mandates for the coronavirus last year, and Adams in March called on business owners to encourage shoppers to remove their face masks indoors as a crime-prevention tactic.

New York City’s air quality early Wednesday was the second-worst in the United States, according to the EPA, trailing only the Susquehanna Valley region of Pennsylvania, which is near New York City and had an AQI of 272.

Other areas in the Northeast also had poor air quality and had triggered Code Purple under the EPA’s monitoring system; Philadelphia’s AQI was 217 and Lehigh Valley, Pennsylvania, had an AQI of 213.