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Could Clean Air Centers Come to NYC?

The idea of giving people a place to escape from air pollution has been tried on the West Coast, and is being considered here after the sky turned orange in June.

July 21, 2023 Samantha Maldonado, The City
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After the Canadian wildfire smoke that blanketed the city in early June cleared, an idea for next time emerged: creating clean air centers.

The centers would be indoor public spaces with clean air where New Yorkers could retreat if they had nowhere else to go, or if the air inside their homes was not healthy.

Public Advocate Jumaane Williams is pursuing legislation with the City Council to establish a network of the centers, which already exist in California and Washington state.

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Staying indoors doesn’t always mean people are out of the way of particulate pollution contained in smoke. Older buildings tend to be draftier and may lack filtration systems. The pollution may even leak into newer housing stock and remain in the air if the space is not equipped with high-quality filters. This kind of pollution is harmful to health, especially for children, the elderly, pregnant people and those with respiratory or heart issues.

NYC Emergency Management, which manages preparations for and the response to emergency events, has not commited to or ruled out clean air centers for future smoke events.

“Our actions and strategies are constantly guided by and from our trusted scientific and medical experts,” said spokesperson Aries Dela Cruz. “In line with this, following any emergency, our team conducts thorough after-action reviews with a commitment to learn, adapt, and improve.”

But Williams says the time to act is now. “It’s no longer enough to reflect and develop plans for what we’ve already encountered thus far; we must also anticipate and prepare for the unforeseen in order to keep our city safe and healthy,” he said.

Tried and Tested in California

Unless indoor air is clean, staying inside is not necessarily the solution to avoiding the worst of the pollution that comes with wildfire smoke, as THE CITY previously reported.

“In the context of climate change, this problem is not going to get better. It’s going to get worse with the fires,” said Dr. Mary Johnson, a research scientist at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. “We really need to become more educated about indoor air quality.”

A report released by Williams’ office this month recommended the city establish clean air centers, upgrade HVAC (heating, ventilation and air conditioning) systems, air filters and air monitors in public schools, and better educate the public on how to make clean air rooms in their homes.

Smoke from Canadian wildfires settled over Lower Manhattan and Brooklyn.
Wildfire smoke that drifted to NYC affected the eyes, throats and breathing of many people, June 7, 2023. | Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

The report largely incorporated ideas from West Coast-based officials.

The Bay Area Air Quality Management District in California launched the state’s first official clean air center in San Francisco last year. The effort includes 331 locations across the region, which are activated when the air quality index exceeds 151, denoting unhealthy air.

The centers are located in libraries, senior centers and recreation centers — and in homeless shelters for the unhoused, and in schools for students. One of the centers underwent a $500,000 HVAC upgrade, but the majority were equipped with portable air cleaners certified by the California Air Resources Board with HEPA filters, which cost about $2,000 each, according to a spokesperson.

If New York City were to implement clean air centers, it could stand to incorporate lessons from the West Coast, too.

Ryan Treves, a research fellow at Stanford Law School’s Regulation, Evaluation, and Governance Lab, authored a paper examining the gaps between the intention behind California’s centers and how they’re actually used.

Challenges appeared in how to find space for the centers and staff them. Those in charge of setting them up reported that sometimes not many people showed up to use them.

“Clean air centers must be made accessible through easy transportation options, robust outreach and extended hours,” Treves said. “They must be a part of a holistic strategy that prioritizes those most vulnerable, such as the unhoused and protects people first and foremost where they are.”

Wear a Mask

City Councilmember Lincoln Restler (D-Brooklyn) on Wednesday questioned — during a Council oversight hearing on the administration’s response to the smoke — why the city did not make available places for people who couldn’t escape, even in their homes, from the terrible air quality.

“Oftentimes, problematic outdoor air gets into people’s apartments even when the windows are closed. It’s really important for there to be a safe place to go,” Restler said. “Opening up the network of centers that are traditionally cooling centers and operating them as clean air centers, getting air purifiers out to them would have been a rapid effective response to better keep New Yorkers safe.”

Emergency Management Commissioner Zachary Iscol noted that New Yorkers would have to go out into the haze to travel to a center via walking or public transit, and that would further threaten their safety.

“We think it would actually be putting New Yorkers in danger by having them go outside of their homes to go outside,” Iscol said.

But experts said that while it’s true that traveling to a center would expose people to the harmful pollution outside, it ultimately would be better than staying inside a home with poor air quality — or without air conditioning, which would make it more likely for a person to have to open their windows.

“By wearing an N95 mask and making that exposure short as possible, the benefits of spending hours in a clean air center would outweigh the short risk of getting there,” said Dan Westervelt, an associate research professor at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory.

Not Just a Cooling Center

The city opens cooling centers when the temperature hits 100 degrees Fahrenheit, or the National Weather Service issues a heat advisory with a forecasted heat index (combining heat plus humidity) of 95 degrees or higher for at least two days. None have been open during the smoke events so far this summer. But simply designating those cooling centers as clean air centers during a smoke event isn’t enough.

“Operating a clean air center is not as trivial as adding purifiers in a cooling center,” said Ilias Kavouras, professor of environmental sciences at the CUNY Graduate School of Public Health, who said officials should start working on a network of clean air centers for the next smoke event.

“There are no easy or cheap fix-ups. It is a matter of preparedness so it won’t be an issue of significant adverse health outcomes including health,” Kavouras added.

The city would have to ensure that those cooling centers — air-conditioned libraries, NYCHA buildings, and senior and community centers — have good indoor air quality by monitoring it and employing high-performance filtration systems to clean the air.

And the city would need to make improvements to its network overall, as a 2022 report from the city comptroller found disparities in the number of centers, their locations and hours open.

Eunice Ko, deputy director of the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance, also encouraged the creation of clean air centers and said the city should make sure it would “distribute them equitably in environmental justice communities.” Those are neighborhoods that already suffer from worse air pollution on a regular basis because of traffic and facilities like power plants.

THE CITY is an independent, nonprofit news outlet dedicated to hard-hitting reporting that serves the people of New York.


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