Jun 8, 2023 - Podcasts

Wildfire smoke causes record air pollution in the Eastern U.S.

The eastern U.S. has been blanketed in smoke from Canadian wildfires over the past few days. It’s gotten so bad that many places, like New York City, broke air quality records. We have what you need to know.

  • Plus, preparing for student loans to come back this summer.

Guests: Axios' Javier David and Jacob Knutson, The Washington Post’s Danielle Douglas-Gabriel.

Credits: Axios Today is produced by Niala Boodhoo, Alexandra Botti, Fonda Mwangi, Lydia McMullen-Laird and Alex Sugiura. Music is composed by Evan Viola. You can reach us at [email protected]. You can text questions, comments and story ideas to Niala as a text or voice memo to 202-918-4893.

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NIALA: Good morning! Welcome to Axios Today!

It’s Thursday, June 8.

I’m Niala Boodhoo.

Today on the show: preparing for student loan payments to come back this summer.

But first: record air pollution hits the Eastern U.S. What to know about the wildfire smoke across the country… that’s our One Big Thing.

NIALA: The Eastern US has been blanketed in smoke from Canadian wildfires over the past two days. It's gotten so bad that many places broke air quality records for pollution. Yesterday afternoon, New York City had the worst air quality anywhere in the world, so I thought I'd talk to a few Axios colleagues around the country about what's going on.

Let's start in Manhattan with managing editor Javier David, here's his dispatch from yesterday afternoon.

JAVIER DAVID: So the vibe New York City can only be described as something quasi-apocalyptic. Unlike Californians, New Yorkers really aren't accustomed to air quality alerts unless it's during the dog days of summer when it gets very hot and humid. So this is something of a new experience for, uh, big apple citizens.

The skies are darkened and in midday, and it's bathing the buildings and streets in this strange sepia or orange color during daylight hours. And the smell of smoke is pungent and omnipresent. The air has a really grimy feel to it that makes it kind of hard to breathe. City officials issued a call for people to stay home so the sidewalks are nearly empty and anywhere there are people, they're masked. It's almost like 2020 all over again.

NIALA: The US has sent more than 600 firefighters and other personnel to help for the fires in Canada. But Canadian officials say it's shaping up to be the worst wildfire season on record. One of my DC coworkers, Axios’ Jacob Knutson, actually used to fight wildfires, and he's been reporting on this one.

JACOB KNUTSEN: Wind currents that are traveling from the north to the southeast carry the smoke produced by the wildfires, which contains air pollutants specifically. Microscopic particles that when we inhale them, they can get lodged into like the deepest parts of our lungs and can also end up in our bloodstream. I'm a former wildland firefighter and they typically don't wear masks when they respond to fires and nor did I. And if I could go back, I probably would wear a mask and I recommend people wear masks if they are in an area with really bad air quality caused by wildfire smoke and other air pollutants.

NIALA: In fact, our Axios colleagues are reporting that this is a good time to pull out your old Covid masks, especially N-95 or KN-95. Finally, let's go to Michigan. Lydia McMullen- Laird is one of our producers here on the podcast, and she focuses on climate. She's in Ann Arbor. Hi Lydia.

LYDIA MCMULLEN-LAIRD: Hi, Niala. Yeah, so I'm about 40 miles outside of Detroit, where the Air Quality Index was around 160 yesterday. Honestly, though, I didn't really even notice at first because when I used to live in China, the air quality was above a hundred all the time. That was really common.

NIALA: But the crazy thing is Lydia, New York City was in the 400 level yesterday.

LYDIA: Yeah, I mean a 400 level, that's no joke. New York Governor Hochul actually called the situation in New York an emergency crisis because that's just such an extremely high level of pollution. And just for context, an air quality index of above 150 is considered unhealthy, and anything above 300 is considered hazardous because at that point, the concentration of pollutants in the air is just so high.

NIALA: So we heard people should be wearing masks. What else can people do to protect themselves?

LYDIA: I mean, honestly, the big one is just stay inside if at all possible, and close your windows and doors and seal any cracks because you wanna try to prevent that outdoor air from coming inside. So if you can turn off the fresh air intake on your AC, that can help a lot as well. And if you can get your hands on a HEPA filter, that's really one of the only ways that you can effectively clean your indoor air. And when the air pollution is this high, even though it's gonna be better inside, it's still not gonna be great. So anything you can do to get your air filtered will be really helpful. And lastly, you're really gonna wanna skip your run and any other cardio for now until things clear up so you're not breathing these pollutants more deeply into your lungs than you need to.

NIALA: What can we expect to see over the next couple of days?

LYDIA: Niala smoke is kind of hard to predict because it depends on a lot of factors like weather patterns and also the fires themselves and how they're developing. But experts are predicting that we're likely to see the smoke start to thin out tomorrow, and hopefully things will be looking better over the weekend.

NIALA: Lydia, is this the new normal? What are experts saying?

LYDIA: Well, you know, Canadian officials have said that this is shaping up to be the worst year on record in terms of wildfires. So unfortunately, we could be seeing more of these types of days throughout the rest of the summer. Of course, the West coast has been dealing with this for years, but now we're starting to see these types of events in parts of the country that haven't really dealt with it before.

NIALA: Lydia McMullen-Laird is a producer with Axios Today. Thanks, Lydia.

LYDIA: Thanks so much, Niala.

NIALA: In a moment, get ready for student loan payments to restart.

NIALA: Welcome back to Axios Today. I'm Niala Boodhoo.

After more than a three year break, federal student loan payments are coming back for real this time. Millions of Americans who collectively owe more than a trillion dollars in federal and private student loans combined are expected to resume payments this September. The Washington Post’ Danielle Douglas-Gabriel is here with what the end of the student loan pause means for Americans. Hi Danielle.


NIALA: So President Biden signed into law the debt relief bill last week that included a provision ending the pause on student loan repayments. What's happening with Biden's student debt relief plan?

DANIELLE: So there are two things. Certainly the suspension of the debt ceiling bill included that provision that would essentially codifies the plan that the Department of Education already announced that before the end of the summer, student loan payments would resume. The other part is the department kind of had a twofold plan. While they were like, definitely your payments are gonna start back September 1st there was also a possibility that payments could start back earlier, depending on when the Supreme Court issued its ruling on the debt relief plan. So 60 days after the Supreme Court ruling on the debt relief plan or by September 1st is when payments would resume. So either of those dates right now is what we're dealing with. But what we do know for certain is people should expect to see a bill before the end of the summer one way or the other.

NIALA: Let's talk about the Supreme Court. It's Thursday morning. Are you expecting that we might hear something even this morning on this?

DANIELLE: I'm hoping for the sake of my anxiety. Every Thursday morning, I'm like, will they, won't they? Is it coming? But it's uncertain at this stage. What we do know is by June 22nd, there will be a ruling one way or the other.

NIALA: Bank of America estimates that approximately 30 million borrowers are going to have to pay $200 to $400 per month. Do we know how people are going to be able to handle that? Because it's been so long that they haven't had those payments?

DANIELLE: There's a lot of concern, especially among economists and some higher education experts, worried that is really a twofold issue, right? The psychology of having to start paying a bill that you haven't had to make a payment on it more than three years, I think will be daunting for some people. And I think the Department of Education is trying to anticipate that by possibly having a long grace period, right? Right now, from what I'm hearing from my sources, it could be anywhere from 90 days to potentially half a year, if not longer. The details on that is still being worked out. And then of course, the other aspect is people's finances have changed. Some people their finances have improved, other people they have not. And certainly inflation starts to eat away at what family budgets, uh, exist right now. And the idea of having to add another bill that's anywhere from $200 to $400 could be a heavy lift for a lot of Americans, for a lot of borrowers. So right now, you know, talking to a lot of loan servicers, these are the folks that handle the collection of your payment and application of your payment, a lot of them are saying, please start to contact us early before you get an official notice about the restart, to figure out whether you're in the right repayment plan to figure out whether you're eligible for any of the forgiveness programs tied to what you do for work or any of those sorts of things because, that's available, now they're not really doing much. They're waiting around just like you are. It's a good time to start thinking about those options.

NIALA: How else should Americans prepare for these payments to resume, Danielle?

DANIELLE: So certainly from a lot of financial folks that I've spoken to, even some of our columnists at the Washington Post have really suggested people start thinking about that added bill in their budget before payments resume. Factor in how much money you're making right now, factoring how much all of your expenses are, and look at whether or not you know you can afford it. There are thankfully, lots of repayment plans that can tie your monthly bill to how much you're earning, and if that is a better fit for you than perhaps your standard repayment plan was prior to the pandemic, then that's something you should look into. The best thing to do is kind of early preparation, looking at what you can afford, looking at your expenses and your income, and then figuring out what's the best path from there.

NIALA: Danielle Douglas-Gabriel covers higher education for The Washington Post. Thanks, Danielle.

DANIELLE: Thank you.

NIALA: That’s all we’ve got for you today!

I’m Niala Boodhoo - thanks for listening - stay safe – and stay inside, if you can – and we’ll see you back here tomorrow morning.

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