How can toxic smog affect your health?

New York City is currently facing its worst air quality in 20 years as smoke from the Canadian wildfires blows into the region. In some of the worst affected areas of the city, inhaling the air is the equivalent to smoking five to 10 cigarettes, according to AccuWeather, a meteorology site.

The toxic smog has taken on a yellow-orange hue, and social media has been flooded with videos of NYC residents documenting the smog, with one person in a high rise apartment even filming themselves placing a towel under their door to stop the smoke entering their apartment.

In response to the smog, schools across the East Coast of the US have been closed and people have been urged to stay indoors.

Read more: Smog from Canada wildfires blankets New York - AFP, 3-min read

While scenes such as this are rare both in the US and in the UK, for some of the world’s most polluted cities, toxic smog is a regular occurrence.

IQAir, an air quality tech company, has a regularly updated list of the world’s most polluted cities. While New York City and Detroit currently sit at the top, other cities with high levels of pollution include Tel-Aviv in Israel, Hanoi in Vietnam, Kolkata in India, Lima in Peru, Lahore in Pakistan, Algiers in Algeria, Doha in Qatar and Dhaka in Bangladesh.

People wearing masks walk along the Hudson River as toxic smog shrouds the skyline of lower Manhattan and One World Trade Center as the sun rises in New York City on June 8, 2023, as seen from Hoboken, New Jersey.  (Photo by Gary Hershorn/Getty Images)
New York City is currently shrouded in toxic smog caused by smoke from wildfires in Canada. (Getty Images)

The site says that around 7 million people die from air pollution each year, and that 99% of the world’s population live in areas where air quality exceeds the World Health Organisation limits.

Toxic smog and air pollution causes

In some cases, like what we’re seeing in the US, toxic smog can be caused by natural disasters like wildfires. When wildfires cover such a large scale, like the 3.3 million hectares of land they are currently occupying in Canada, this can cause large volumes of smoke be blown towards other part of the country or continent which can create toxic smog.

Air pollution and toxic smog can also be a result of human activities such as motor vehicles, industrial facilities, and household devices like fireplaces, heaters, ovens and clothes driers.

A person wears a face mask as smoke from wildfires in Canada cause hazy conditions in New York City on June 7, 2023. An orange-tinged smog caused by Canada's wildfires shrouded New York on Wednesday, obscuring its famous skyscrapers and causing residents to don face masks, as cities along the US East Coast issued air quality alerts. (Photo by ANGELA WEISS / AFP) (Photo by ANGELA WEISS/AFP via Getty Images)
A man looks at the smog covering the Manhattan skyline. (Getty Images)

Health implications of toxic smog

According to a study published in 2021, some of the major diseases caused by smog include asthma, bronchiolitis, cardiovascular disease, cancer, low birth weight, breathing difficulties and neurological disorders.

Read more: Why is New York City’s air quality so bad? - Evening Standard, 3-min read

The World Health Organisation states that one third of deaths from strokes, lung cancer and heart disease are due to air pollution, and that it can have an equivalent effect to smoking tobacco and a worse effect than eating too much salt.

What to do if your city is covered in smog

To protect yourself on high pollution days, according to Asthma and Lung UK, you can do several of the following things:

  • Limit outdoor activities and exercise

  • If you have to go outside, do so earlier in the day when the air quality is better

  • Keep your car windows closed if you are driving

  • People with asthma should be prepared to use their inhaler more often

If you live in areas affected by heavy smog from smoke, to keep it from entering the home, it’s best to keep your windows and doors shut as tightly as possible. If there are some cracks in your windows and doors, then you can try placing a damp towel at the base of the door on the inside to absorb any of the smoke.

Heavy smog in Piccadilly Circus, London, 6th December 1952.(Photo by Central Press/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Heavy smog in Piccadilly Circus, London, 6 December 1952. (Getty Images)

Toxic smog incidences in the UK

The UK is not exempt from toxic smog or harmful air pollution, in fact the government says that poor air quality is the “largest environmental risk to public health in the UK, as long-term exposure to air pollution can cause chronic conditions such as cardiovascular and respiratory diseases as well as lung cancer, leading to reduced life expectancy”.

The most recent research from Public Health England estimates that long-term exposure to man-made air pollution in the UK results in 28,000 to 36,000 deaths per year.

Read more: Outer London’s worst asthma hotspots revealed as mother tells of impact on 5-year-old son - Evening Standard, 5-min read

London has been particularly hard hit by smog in the past. Over seven decades ago, The Great Smog of 1952 brought a fog so thick and polluted that it left 4,000 people dead and even caused cows to choke in fields.

The smog landed in London for five days between 5 December 1952 and 9 December 1952, with the fog so thick in some areas that people reported that they couldn't even see their own feet. The smog was caused by an exceptionally cold start to winter which saw people burning large quantities of coal in their homes.

In response to the smog, a series of laws were put in place to prevent it happening again, including the Clean Air Acts of 1956 and 1968 that banned emissions of black smoke.