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ER visits spike amid wildfire smoke: asthma, breathing problems

Hospitals in New York City are reporting a sharp increase in ER visits for asthma and other respiratory problems due to smoke from Canadian wildfires.

“At Lenox Health Greenwich Village, for example, the number of asthma treatments were more than double the average,” a spokesperson for Northwell Health told NBC News 4.

The air quality index (AQI) jumped to 254 — a degree rated “very unhealthy” for everyone — on Wednesday, June 7, as the New York City region was blanketed under eerie orange skies.

By comparison, the AQI just two days earlier was only 53, which is considered acceptable by the U.S. government’s AirNow website.

The pollutant of greatest concern during wildfires is called PM 2.5, or particulate matter that’s 2.5 microns wide or smaller.

image of new york city under orange skies

“PM 2.5 can be made of many different types of particles and often come from processes that involve combustion (e.g., vehicle exhaust, power plants, and fires), according to the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC).

“Exposure can cause short-term health effects such as irritation to the eyes, nose, and throat, coughing, sneezing, runny nose, and shortness of breath,” the DEC explained.

“Exposure to elevated levels of fine particulate matter can also worsen medical conditions such as asthma and heart disease.”

doctor examines woman with breathing problems
Getty Images/iStockphoto

Dr. Purvi Parikh, an allergist and immunologist with the Allergy & Asthma Network, told The Post that “children, elderly, pregnant women, those with lung disease (asthma, COPD [chronic obstructive pulmonary disease], lung cancer), heart disease or immunocompromised” are most at risk.

Even people who are not at high risk need to be cautious, she noted.

“These gases can cause heart disease and cognitive issues as they impact your blood’s ability to oxygenate other vital organs. The smoke inhalation can cause premature or preterm birth in pregnant women as well,” Parikh said.

She also advised: “It’s best to stay inside in bad days and run a HEPA air purifier if you have them. Keep windows closed and wear masks outside — higher-grade medical masks are best like N95, KN95.” 

Air quality problems are likely to continue up to the start of the weekend: The New York DEC issued an Air Quality Health Advisory for the Long Island, New York City Metro, and Western New York regions through midnight, Friday, June 9.

And Canada is faring no better.

According to the Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Centre, there are still more than 400 active fires across the vast country, CBS News reported.