My air purifier saved me during NYC’s air quality crisis

Smoky haze from wildfires in Canada diminishes the visibility of the Empire State Building on June 7, 2023 in New York City. New York topped the list of most polluted major cities in the world on Tuesday night, as smoke from the fires continues to blanket the East Coast.
(Image credit: David Dee Delgado/Getty Images)

New York City looked like a sepia-toned post-apocalyptic hellscape on Tuesday and Wednesday. 

An air quality crisis hit NYC like never before, thanks to wildfire smoke that floated down all the way from Ontario and Quebec. Area residents watched in fascinated horror as the iconic Manhattan skyline disappeared in an orange haze. We saw air quality alerts turned maroon, the highest level. I realized this is what it must be like to live on the West Coast. 

Most outdoor events were canceled. Teachers were told to stay at home, while students observed an already-scheduled holiday. People who ventured outside wore masks, like in the early days of the pandemic. TG's own Kate Kozuch wore Dyson Zone air-purifying headphones

Many others, like myself, were able to remain indoors. And I was even more fortunate, since I had already invested in an air purifier to alleviate allergies earlier this year

The air quality crisis has renewed everyone's interest in purchasing the best air purifiers to keep indoor air clean. According to Google Trends, searches for "air purifier" increased by more than 450% during the worst of the airpocalypse. Fox News reported that New York City stores sold out of air purifiers.

I was already a big fan of my air purifier, a Coway Airmega AP-1512HH, for significantly reducing my allergies. It more than proved its worth during the air quality crisis. 

Wildfire smoke is very bad for your health

The Coway AP-1512HH Air Purifier in white, in a child's bedroom.

(Image credit: Coway)

On Wednesday, New York City recorded its worst-ever Air Quality Index (AQI) at 352, which is deemed "hazardous."

Friends who stayed inside but didn't have an air purifier said they could still smell smoke. Me? I didn't get so much as a whiff or a tickle in my nose.

The color-coding at that level is maroon, but believe me, nobody was dancing with no shoes and looking up at the sky — which was actually orange (h/t Taylor Swift). Stepping outside, I could smell the distinct odor of burning material, like I'd been stoking a campfire non-stop for half a day. 

Smoke pollution is considered "fine particulate matter," or microscopic bits smaller than 2.5 microns. That's even smaller than dust. It's so tiny that it can't be filtered out with surgical mask. 

The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) advised that exposure to PM 2.5 can "cause short-term health effects such as irritation to the eyes, nose, and throat, coughing, sneezing, runny nose, and shortness of breath. Exposure to elevated levels of fine particulate matter can also worsen medical conditions such as asthma and heart disease."

Experts advised everyone to stay indoors if they could, but most particularly children, the elderly and people with preexisting conditions such as asthma, allergies, or COPD. 

But smoke can easily make its way indoors. Since Americans spend an average of around 90 percent of their time indoors, the quality of indoor air has a massive effect on our health.

That's where air purifiers can help.

My air purifier went on red alert

Coway Airmega AP-1512HH air purifier with red light on

(Image credit: Kelly Woo/Tom's Guide)

As I mentioned, I bought a Coway Airmega AP-1512HH earlier this year. I liked its compact, lightweight, unobtrusive design; washable outer pre-filter; deodorizing carbon filter; and HEPA filter to trap micro-particles. Also, it was on sale at Amazon

I keep my air purifier on eco mode, which automates fan speed according the air quality level. Prior to this week, I'd only seen it turn red (high fan speed) twice — once after I seared a steak and once while my bathroom was being repainted. 

On Tuesday evening, when the smoky haze started to ramp, I noticed my air purifier going into purple mode (medium fan speed) more frequently. 

On Wednesday, I opened my front door to retrieve a package (kudos to the poor delivery drivers) for perhaps 30 seconds. And my air purifier went RED. 

It stayed on high for about half an hour (even longer than the steak incident). And all through the afternoon and evening, as NYC turned into a scene from Dune, the air purifier ran near continuously in purple or red modes. 

Thank goodness, since friends who went outdoors (even with masks) reported symptoms like watering eyes, sneezing and headaches. Other friends who stayed inside but didn't have an air purifier said they could still smell smoke. Me? I didn't get so much as a whiff or a tickle in my nose.

While the East Coast in general, and NYC in particular, have been spared constant wildfire smoke, that could change in the near future. We may experience another air quality crisis like this one. Which is why I recommend getting an air purifier. When the next airpocalypse comes along, you'll breathe easy. 

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Kelly Woo
Streaming Editor

Kelly is the streaming channel editor for Tom’s Guide, so basically, she watches TV for a living. Previously, she was a freelance entertainment writer for Yahoo, Vulture, TV Guide and other outlets. When she’s not watching TV and movies for work, she’s watching them for fun, seeing live music, writing songs, knitting and gardening.