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How cities around the world deal with toxic air quality

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

There are some 400 wildfires burning in Canada, and hundreds of U.S. firefighters have joined the battle. President Biden has directed the National Interagency Fire Center to promptly respond to Canadian requests for additional help. Reporter Emma Jacobs has the latest from Canada.

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IRENE NEEPOSH: I'm here to provide you with another update...

EMMA JACOBS, BYLINE: Over the last several days, Chief Irene Neeposh of the Waswanipi First Nation has been posting regular updates on Facebook in English and in Cree.

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NEEPOSH: ...On the evacuations. We've completed level 2A and 2B, meaning the people with medical conditions have been evacuated and also the children, elders and pregnant women.

JACOBS: She's speaking to residents who remain in the community, as well as those evacuated or on the road to Quebec City, 300 miles to the south.

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NEEPOSH: The ones that are - still remain in Waswanipi, I need to ask you to reduce the use of gas, for if in the case we do need to evacuate, you'll have to work with what you've got.

JACOBS: The fires have led to the full or partial evacuation of several small communities in the north of Quebec. Most of the smoke affecting the East Coast has been coming from this region, but fires are still active across a swath of Canada from west to east. There are over 400 active fires across the country. In Quebec, cars were backed up on the road from Chibougamau, which ordered all 7,500 residents to evacuate earlier this week.

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MANON CYR: (Speaking French).

JACOBS: Chibougamau's mayor, Manon Cyr, said she knows it's difficult for people to remain patient, but they should expect to remain for several days.

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FRANCOIS LEGAULT: (Speaking French).

JACOBS: Quebec's premier, Francois Legault, said the roughly 13,000 total evacuees shouldn't expect to go home before significant rain arrives to aid firefighters on Monday night. That's despite the addition of hundreds of firefighters who began arriving yesterday from France and the United States. With over 100 wildfires burning in Quebec alone, they will assist fire crews there and members of the Canadian military already on the ground.

For NPR News, I'm Emma Jacobs in Montreal.

MARTÍNEZ: Thick smoke from those intense wildfires in Canada continues to drift across much of the United States, blanketing many cities with a toxic haze. That's triggered days of air quality warnings in New York, Washington and other cities. Schools across the east have been canceling outdoor activities. Vulnerable people have been advised to stay indoors. Flights have been grounded in some places due to poor visibility. And also, a number of Broadway shows and sporting events have been canceled.

ASMA KHALID, HOST:

Yeah. That's right. Margaret Cirino from New York City says the streets have been unusually empty, and the journey to work lately has been, quote, "wild."

MARGARET CIRINO: The sky was bright orange yesterday, and everyone on the subway was, like, masking up.

MARTÍNEZ: Kristi Balazy in Falls Church, Va., says she hasn't been going outside much.

KRISTI BALAZY: The haze has been really ominous in how it looks outside, and it's been hard to breathe when walking.

KHALID: This is unusual in this part of the country but very familiar to many folks in other parts of the world. For millions, toxic air quality is a daily reality. Some cities have learned to combat pollution, while others are learning to live with it. First, we hear from NPR's Eyder Peralta in Mexico City, then Anthony Kuhn in Seoul and reporter Shalu Yadav in New Delhi.

EYDER PERALTA, BYLINE: Mexico City was once known as the most polluted city in the world. The air quality here is still bad. Today, the AQI reached 123, which is unhealthy for people with respiratory problems. And you feel it. Your eyes get watery, your throat scratchy, and the sky looks hazy. But in the '90s and early 2000s, air quality would routinely hit extremely bad levels, with AQI in the 200s. So how did it get better? Essentially, the government got tough on pollution with a complex system of countermeasures.

Less-efficient cars are allowed limited time on the road, and as soon as the air quality gets bad, either too high a concentration of ozone or particulate matter, the government orders even newer, more efficient cars off the streets. They order factories to reduce their output. Food vendors are prohibited from using charcoal, and roadwork stops. If the air quality doesn't improve, the countermeasures get tougher. It can mean residents can't drive to work or school, for example, so they have to walk, bike or take public transportation. If it gets bad enough, government offices are shut down.

And this program has made a huge difference. In the '90s, Mexico City faced terrible air every month. Mexicans used to joke the air was so bad so often that birds would die mid-flight. Currently, really bad days are rare. We only have a handful of environmental contingencies each year.

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: I'm Anthony in Seoul, where my air quality app is telling me the air quality right now is 70, which is moderate, not terrible. I used to report from Beijing, where, until recent years, air pollution was often off the charts. I used to live in an old neighborhood and burn coal in stoves to heat my home. That was before we had apps and air quality monitors, and many people around me had difficulty telling the difference between weather and pollution, fog and smog. Sure, it was unhealthy, but I saw it as part of the story I was covering and living.

In recent years, Beijing's air has improved as the government has moved factories out of the city center and phased out coal stoves. When I moved to Seoul 4 1/2 years ago, I thought I was leaving this smog behind. But I was wrong. It followed me.

Some of South Korea's air pollution blows over from China. A lot of it is homemade. Yoon Suk Yeol, who took over as South Korea's president last year, has said that by the end of his five-year term, he'll get air quality up to the level of London or Paris. So far this year, though, we've had plenty of bad air days of air quality of 100 or worse. Not much I can do on those except stay indoors, crank up the air purifiers and wait for a stiff northwest wind to blow the smog away.

SHALU YADAV, BYLINE: This is Shalu in New Delhi, opening my curtains to see what it looks like outside. The sun is out. The sky is looking blue. But there's also a fair bit of dust flying around as morning traffic builds up here. The AQI app on my phone tells me that the air outside today is unhealthy for sensitive groups. The AQI level is 117, which is, frankly, not alarming enough for Delhiites to be worried. And that's because we have it so much worse in winters, when the AQI level sometimes goes beyond 700.

When it's that time of the year, I often don't need the app to tell me how grim it is outside. It's so bad that my eyes burn as soon as I wake up. I can taste the pollutants in my mouth, and the lungs feel like an overworked machine that needs a break. In fact, some studies suggest that breathing in the Delhi air is as dangerous as smoking about two dozen cigarettes a day. Emissions from factories, vehicles and burning of stubble by farmers - all these factors come together to make Delhi's air toxic. And the government's efforts to relieve the problem, restricting building construction and traffic to try and mitigate the pollution, isn't really enough.

MARTÍNEZ: That was Eyder Peralta in Mexico City, Anthony Kuhn in Seoul, Shalu Yadav in New Delhi.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Emma Jacobs
Eyder Peralta is NPR's East Africa correspondent based in Nairobi, Kenya.
Anthony Kuhn is NPR's correspondent based in Seoul, South Korea, reporting on the Korean Peninsula, Japan, and the great diversity of Asia's countries and cultures. Before moving to Seoul in 2018, he traveled to the region to cover major stories including the North Korean nuclear crisis and the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear disaster.
Shalu Yadav