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New York's air quality sensor network expands to all counties

The Rochester skyline covered in smoke seen from Cobbs Hill in June.  (photo by Max Schulte)
Max Schulte
WXXI News file photo
Smoke partially obscures the Rochester skyline, as seen from Cobbs Hill in June 2023. At the time, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation classified the Rochester region's air quality as "unhealthy" because of the smoke from raging wildfires in Canada.

When a shroud of gray smoke from Canada's wildfires blocked out the sun for days at a time in Rochester and other parts of New York this summer, almost half of the state's counties had no way to track real-time air quality data.

That caught the attention of Cornell University's Department of Public and Ecosystem Health. In partnership with Cornell Cooperative Extension, the department recently completed a project to fill those gaps.

As of late October, 28 air quality sensors had been installed, mostly in rural communities where there had been none. This includes Wayne, Genesee, Livingston, Seneca, Wyoming, and Yates counties.
The Environmental Protection Agency previously located air monitors in larger, urban areas, such as Rochester, Buffalo, Syracuse, Albany, and the New York metro area. The current EPA smoke and fire map shows eight sensors in Monroe County.

Cornell epidemiologist Corinna Noel said New Yorkers probably never considered wildfire smoke a hazard until they experienced the residual effects of fires raging hundreds of miles away.

"I think, really, the perceived need wasn't there, but now that it's expected that wildfire smoke is going continue to impact us, unfortunately, having those sensors there is really key," she said.

The devices measure the level of fine particulate matter in the area where they are located. More sensors provide a more localized picture of the air quality in a given region.

"It's particularly challenging in counties with diverse landscapes," Noel said. "Thinking about the Finger Lakes ... (a location) even a couple of miles away could have vastly different wildfire smoke levels."

Air quality checks can be a daily practice for someone with severe asthma or other respiratory illness. Anyone can look up data from their region on the EPA map, but it appears that the website has not yet been updated to include the newly installed sensors.

Cornell is also collecting responses from people who live in the Northeast about how they perceived and responded to wildfire smoke this summer. People who spent part or all of their summer in New York or a nearby state in 2023 are asked to answer a brief survey.

Beth Adams joined WXXI as host of Morning Edition in 2012 after a more than two-decade radio career. She was the longtime host of the WHAM Morning News in Rochester. Her career also took her from radio stations in Elmira, New York, to Miami, Florida.