Why is the air quality so bad in Seattle today – worse than Lahore and Beijing?

Alexandra Ciufudean October 20, 2022
Why is the air quality so bad in Seattle today – worse than Lahore and Beijing?
Mt. Rainier viewed from the West Seattle bridge in the morning. The Duwamish waterway is in the foreground. Picture by Getty Images

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Seattle air was ranked worst in the world on Wednesday afternoon (October 19, 2022) and an air quality alert extended until Thursday at midnight, KIRO 7 reports. But why is the air quality in Seattle so bad today and what can you do to protect yourself?

Swiss company IQAir, which collects and compares real-time data on air quality across the world, placed Seattle in the top spot on Wednesday afternoon. Cities that ranked better were Lahore in Pakistan at number two, Delhi in India at three and Beijing in China at four.

As of today, Seattle and Portland, Oregon, are ranked the top two worst cities in the world for air quality, going over into the purple “Very Unhealthy/Hazardous” zone.

But why is Seattle’s – and the state of Washington’s – air quality so bad today? Here’s what we know.

Mt. Rainier viewed from the West Seattle bridge in the morning. The Duwamish waterway is in the foreground. Picture by Getty Images

Why is the air quality in Seattle so bad today?

Puget Sound residents are enduring another day of smoky, acrid air as Seattle, Washington, and Portland, Oregon, top world charts for worst air quality.

The first air quality warnings were issued in the area on Friday evening, as wildfire season raged across most of western Washington. Two of the largest blazes at the moment are the Bolt Creek fire, which so far has consumed more than 14,000 acres of forest near Skykomish and is about 40 per cent under control, KUOW reports, and the Loch Katrine fire, which has burned an estimated 1,620 acres of forest 30 miles west of Seattle.

Additionally, the Nakia Creek wildfire near Vancouver, Washington, exploded on Sunday, fueled by unseasonably hot and dry weather. Portland and Vancouver reached upwards of 80F (26C) last week, breaking a decades-old daily record, USA Today reports.

As firefighters struggle to get these and other blazes in the region under control, western Washington remains enveloped in a thick cloud of smoke.

Despite the impact on air quality, Washington’s commissioner of public lands Hilary Franz announced last week that wildfire season had been “the lightest in a decade” with “just” 140,000 acres burned this year. That’s compared with 2021 figures, when half a million acres were destroyed, and 2020, when 842,000 acres were consumed by blazes.

Franz added crews were able to keep 94 per cent of wildfires confined to ten acres or less in 2022.

What are the effects of bad air quality on Seattle residents? How to protect yourself

Wednesday morning, Seattle residents woke up to some of the most alarming air quality measurements they had ever seen:

While some advised masking up and investing in quality air purifiers, others genuinely worried about the health effects of Seattle’s poor air quality.

Current levels across Seattle, western Washington and the Portland metropolitan area make it unhealthy for sensitive groups, including outdoor workers, pregnant people, people with heart, lung and respiratory conditions, as well as those over 65 and under 18.

On KIRO, guests talked health tips for Seattle’s abysmal air quality, including one yoga instructor who recommended “a few really deep breaths in the morning” as helpful for everyone. However, they added, it might be best to do it indoors at the moment.

The advice is echoed by the US Health Department and Seattle Public School District, which recommended keeping students indoors, limiting activity levels as much as possible unless in a space with filtered air, and either canceling all outdoor athletic events or moving them to an air-filtered indoor space.

“Consider time spent in poor air quality during transit before relocating,” the school district’s advice graphic added.

Washington, Oregon top IQ Air chart ahead of Lahore, Delhi

According to latest data from IQAir, Portland and Seattle have the worst air quality in the world, ahead of cities with historically high levels of pollution such as Lahore, Pakistan; Delhi, India; and Beijing, China.

Once a top contender for world’s most polluted city, Beijing has made large strides towards cleaning up its air. Known as a “fog” among residents, the city’s air pollution was bad enough to lend its name to a health phenomenon – the “Beijing cough.”

But in 2021, CNN reported that was a thing of the past. In 2020, Beijing recorded only ten days of heavy pollution – a decrease of 80 per cent compared with 2015 – state-run tabloid Global Times reported.

Lahore, Pakistan, on the other hand, regularly tops world air pollution charts due to a unique mix of factors: vehicle and industrial emissions, smoke from brick kilns, the burning of crop residue and general waste, and dust from construction sites.

Winter-time temperature inversions make this even worse, as a layer of warm air is prevented from rising by heavier, colder air, which results in trapped pollutants.

Photo by ARIF ALI/AFP via Getty Images

In an NPR interview, Pakistani attorney on environmental issues Ahmad Alam described Lahore’s air as tasting of “diesel. Sometimes, it’s wood. Sometimes, it’s something suspicious. You know, you wonder what it is.”

It looks like the air quality in Seattle today is in dire company on IQAir’s charts. However, things are expected to improve on Friday, when the first of two incoming storm systems should bring the first heavy rainfall since early summer to the region.

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Alexandra Ciufudean is the Head of Entertainment at The Focus where she manages a growing team of outstanding writers. On a day-to-day basis, she hunts for the latest in online trends and keeps her finger on the pulse of US culture, politics, and celebs. Alexandra helped launch The Focus in 2020 and developed the site into an expert online news source. A language nerd through and through, she boasts 5 years of experience as an editor, writer, and content specialist across web, video, and social platforms, and a master's degree in Comparative Literature.