How poor air quality on East Coast compares to other global cities

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Welcome to The Hill’s Sustainability newsletter


The Big Story 

Roaring wildfires burning across Canadian territories have delivered the types of poor air quality that some of the world’s largest, and most polluted, cities face on a daily basis.

© AP

Smoke plumes from fires burning in the forests of eastern Canada have drifted to cities like Washington, D.C., New York and Philadelphia, sending them soaring to the top of the global pollution charts. 


For example, New York City surged to the top of the list of global cities for the worst air quality on Wednesday. Another list had 38 out of the top 50 slots taken up by East Coast cities in the U.S. and Canada.


The contamination sending the air quality index (AQI) scores through the roof is different than the pollution facing many global cities on a near-constant basis. 


The pollution keeping residents of New York and Detroit indoors is mostly fine particulate matter, or PM 2.5 — tiny floating soot particles so small they can enter the bloodstream — rather than the soup of petrochemical byproducts that combine to form ozone. 


Their effects on the human respiratory system, however, are quite similar, leading to complications from asthma to heart disease.  


And climate change is making both forms of pollution worse, according to data from the Environmental Protection Agency.


Because there are so many air contaminants with such an overlapping range of effects, the Environmental Protection Agency rolls them together into a single metric


The Air Quality Index (AQI) aims to capture how dangerous a particular region’s air is, no matter its particular cocktail of pollutants. The higher the number, the worse the air. 


A global comparison of these metrics on Wednesday revealed stark connections:

  • New York City topped the list of global cities with the worst air quality Wednesday, with an AQI around 400 — more than twice as much pollution as famously smoggy Jakarta (146) and a whopping 8 times as bad as Beijing (45).

  • Washington, D.C. (with an AQI of 180) had worse air quality than that floating above the bustling, congested capital megacities of New Delhi and Manila. 

  • U.S. and Canadian Great lakes cities closer to the fires had it even worse. Syracuse, N.Y., for example, clocked in at 444.

* US city

© Graphic: Rachel Scully, The Hill / Source:, EPA AirNow tool

But unlike most of those global cities — where pollution comes from a relatively stable mix of industrial and automotive emissions — these numbers are highly unusual for North America’s East Coast.

  • Syracuse’s and Ottawa’s AQI, for example, is about 10 times what it was a month ago. Albany, D.C., New York City, Philadelphia and President Biden’s hometown of Scranton, Pa., are all about four times as high.  

  • And the air of Detroit and Pittsburgh is about three times as contaminated as a month ago.

Environmental groups were quick to connect the East Coast’s bad air quality to the broader forces making it worse.


Rising temperatures are both increasing ground level ozone and particulate matter from existing pollution sources and increasing the number, speed and severity of wildfires — which are leading to more dangerous levels of drifting smoke.


In Quebec, a sudden surge of forest fires — from 10 last week to 153 today — has outstripped the province’s resources, the Montreal Gazette reported.


With fires still burning out of control and worsening fires on the horizon, Quebec is struggling to get international help, The Hill reported. 

“The situation remains serious,” Canadian Emergency Preparedness Minister Bill Blair said. “The images that we have seen so far this season are some of the most severe we have we have ever witnessed in Canada and the current forecast for the next few months indicates the potential for continued higher-than-normal fire activity.”

Welcome to The Hill’s Sustainability newsletter, I’m Saul Elbein — every week we follow the latest moves in the growing battle over sustainability in the U.S. and around the world.

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Essential Reads 

Latest news impacting sustainability this week and beyond:

A Republican congressional committee escalated its campaign against sustainable investing on Tuesday. The GOP heads of two major House subcommittees sought to cast investing that considers factors like climate or human rights as an insidious attempt to “rewire the fabric of America,” in the words of Rep. Pat Fallon (R-Texas), chairman of the Oversight Subcommittee on Economic Growth, Energy Policy, and Regulatory Affairs. Proponents …

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As planet-warming carbon emissions rise, a major solution to climate change is growing beneath our feet. A study published Monday in Current Biology found that fungi gobble up more than a third of the world’s annual fossil fuel emissions. As such, fungi “represent a blind spot in carbon modeling, conservation, and restoration,” coauthor Katie Field, a professor of biology at the University of Sheffield, said in a statement. …

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Two of the world’s major wheat-growing regions are skating on the ragged edge of a catastrophic failure. Since 1981, wheat-withering heat waves have become 16 times more common in the Midwest, according to a study published Friday in the journal NPJ Climate and Atmospheric Science. That means a crop-destroying temperature spike that might have come to the Midwest once in a century in 1981 will now visit the region approximately …

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Scientists have uncovered a potentially lethal paradox at the heart of efforts to slow human-caused climate change. A series of new studies suggest a stark truth. One the one hand, cutting fossil fuel pollution is necessary for avoiding severe destruction over the long term. But such cuts will make the earth much hotter in the short term. One recent study cast the well-known declines in air pollution during the COVID-19 …

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Fighting Fires 

© AP

A bipartisan group of Western senators on Wednesday introduced the Headwaters Protection Act, which seeks to keep those forests and their important water-filtering functions from going up in smoke. 


Securing forests from fire isn’t just essential for maintaining healthy air. Woodlands are also a key element in filtering America’s water, supplying drinking water to 1 in 5 Americans. 


“Watershed health is essential to preserving drinking water sources that many metropolitan communities depend on,” Tom Dobbins, the CEO of the Association of Metropolitan Water Agencies, said in a statement.


Who’s on board: The bill aims to dramatically increase programs within the U.S. Forest Service that allows the agency to “restore forest health and impaired watersheds,” according to a white paper released by the group. 

  • It was sponsored by sponsored by Sens. Mike Crapo (R-Idaho) and Michael Bennet (D-Colo.). 

  • Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), James Risch (R-Idaho), Ben Ray Lujan (D-N.M.), Mark Kelly (D-Ariz.) and John Hickenlooper (D-Colo.) are also on board.

Why it matters: “In the West, the survival of our economy and our way of life depends on the stewardship of our forests and watersheds,” Bennet said in a statement.


“We need to pass this legislation to protect critical water resources for downstream communities and make our forests more resilient to wildfire, drought, and a changing climate.” 


Nitty gritty: If it becomes law, the bill would triple funds allocated to the Water Source Protection Program (WSPP) from $10 to $30 million, allowing the agency to go further — and involve more stakeholders — in coordinating public and private campaigns to help protect critical headwater forests from destructive fire

  • It would also pour another $30 million into a related program, the Watershed Condition Framework (WCF). 

  • Additional language added to to that act requires participants to “ensures that management activities … do not result in long-term degradation of watershed health.” 

Keeping it local: Conservative sponsors cited the fact that the bill offers incentives to local authorities — rather than heightened federal scrutiny — as a key element in their support. 

  • These reforms reflect the idea that “protecting our natural resources and the environment is a collaborative effort at every level,” Crapo said in a statement. 

  • The act funds watershed restoration while “encouraging collaboration as a benefit to small, rural and disadvantaged communities and tribes without exerting federal control over private lands,” he added.  

On Our Radar 

Upcoming news themes and events we’re watching:

  • A bipartisan group of conservative Republicans and progressive Democrats are pushing for wholesale reforms in this year’s Farm Bill that could walk back government support for big agriculture — a move that more corporate-friendly members of both parties are skeptical of.

  • And with the anniversary of the disastrous explosion at a Freeport, Texas, liquified natural gas (LNG) terminal, the Biden administration faces additional pressure from Gulf Coast groups concerned about a further expansion in that industry. That buildout will be far easier thanks to the bipartisan debt ceiling deal, which substantially relaxes environmental review for infrastructure projects.

In Other News 

Branch out with different reads from The Hill:

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Wildfires in Canada are creating serious health hazards across the United States, turning the New York City skyline a tint of orange on Wednesday that made America’s largest city look like a location from a post-apocalyptic sci-fi film in widely shared photographs and broadcast images.

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Story at a glance Los Angeles and the surrounding communities have some of the highest housing prices in the nation. A one-bedroom, one-bathroom home in Alhambra has captured the attention of prospective buyers across the Los Angeles region and beyond. The single-family residence is actually below street level, down a staircase and embedded into the side of a bridge overlooking the Alhambra wash. (KTLA) – Getting into the housing market in Southern California can be both daunting and confusing. If sticker shock doesn’t scare you off, finding a property that fits your lifestyle can be even harder to come by.

Around The Nation 

Local and state headlines on sustainability issues:

  • Researchers discovered why a massive earthquake hasn’t wrecked Los Angeles yet (The Washington Post)

  • A Zoo Association Devoted to Science, and Plagued by Scandal (Undark)

  • Amid ESG backlash, BlackRock pays for guards, home security for CEO Larry Fink (Pensions & Investments)

What We’re Reading 

Sustainability news we’ve flagged from other outlets:

  • Ukrainians face homelessness, disease risk as floods crest from breached dam (Reuters)

  • Russia and Saudi Arabia’s Oil Partnership Shows Strain (NYT)

  • How can I avoid eating food with ‘forever’ chemicals? (The Washington Post)

What Others are Reading 

More stories on The Hill right now:

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Dozens of people parked their cars in the Walmart lot and walked up to the doors, only to find a sign that told them it was closed permanently. Read more

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More than 600 stoles with the misspelling were distributed to seniors – many of which crossed the graduation stage before noticing the mistake. Read more

You’re all caught up. See you next week! 


For the latest news, weather, sports, and streaming video, head to The Hill.