How to Stay Healthy When Air Quality Is Not

Written by: Beth Dougherty

On June 7, 2023, New York City had the world’s worst air quality as smoke from Canadian wildfires drifted southward. Images of the city showed orange skies and a barely visible skyline.

Air pollution is a leading cause of death worldwide and is also connected to cancer. According to the American Lung Association (ALA), long term exposure to particle pollution like that seen in New York, across the Eastern U.S., and elsewhere due to forest fires, increases the likelihood of lung cancer.

A recent study done in the United Kingdom showed that exposure to the main component of woodfire smoke — tiny particles less than 2.5 micrometers in diameter, called PM2.5 — can cause mutations to the cells of the lungs, which can lead to cancer.

Unfortunately, smoke from forest fires is expected to increase across the U.S. over time as climate change continues.

What can you do to stay healthy?

  • Know the Air Quality Index. provides a dashboard showing the current air quality index (AQI) and a near-term forecast.
  • Avoid outdoor activity when air quality becomes unhealthy or hazardous. Sensitive groups — such as people with heart or lung disease, including asthma, older adults, children, and teenagers — may want to restrict their activities at a lower AQI than others. Some examples:
    • Got a dog to walk? If you are not in a sensitive group, wear a mask and keep it short. If the AQI is over 300, avoid going outside at all. Wait until the air is clearer.Got a picnic scheduled? If the AQI is over 151, consider rescheduling or including an air-conditioned indoor location for people to use to reduce time outdoors.
    • Got a field day for kids planned? If the AQI is over 101, consider rescheduling or bringing some activities into an air-conditioned indoor space.
  • Wear an N95 mask – the same ones used during the COVID-19 pandemic – outdoors if you must go outside when AQI is unhealthy.
  • Consider an air purifier indoors or turn air conditioning units on to filter your indoor air, especially if the AQI is expected to be high for many days in a row. People who live in older homes might also consider sealing leaky windows the same way you would to keep heat inside in winter.
  • Consider replacing the filters on your air conditioning and air purifying units regularly if your area experiences prolonged or frequent high AQI levels.