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Millions in Washington and eastern U.S. under harmful haze as smoke persists

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By Kanishka Singh and Tyler Clifford

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -The U.S. capital was shrouded in a haze of smoke on Thursday, as hundreds of Canadian wildfires continued to push clouds of polluted air across much of the eastern U.S., causing flight disruptions and prompting warnings from health officials.

In Washington, traffic was light and trains less crowded than usual as many companies told employees to work from home. Some non-essential city services were suspended, including parks and recreation, road construction and waste collection.

The Washington Nationals baseball team called off its home game, while the National Zoo shut down for the day. The Biden administration postponed its Pride Month event, which had been expected to be the largest celebration for LGBTQ+ people in the White House’s history.

Health officials in more than a dozen states have warned millions of residents that spending time outdoors could cause respiratory issues due to the high levels of fine particulates in the atmosphere.

Government data showed air quality readings above the “hazardous” level in Washington on Thursday morning.

Chris Harris, a 46-year-old bus operator in Washington, said he noticed far fewer people outside, including on public transport.

“I haven’t seen this many people in the masks since the pandemic was still big,” he said.

Many people wore masks outside as a thick layer of smoke veiled the capital. The smog, which reeked of ash, grew denser as the day wore on, erasing the top of the Washington Monument from view.

“This problem is likely to continue or worsen through Friday,” Washington Mayor Muriel Bowser said in a tweet. “We urge residents and visitors to follow precautions.”

The U.S. National Weather Service extended air quality alerts from New England to South Carolina, as well as parts of the Midwest, including Ohio, Indiana and Michigan.

It was the worst case of wildfire smoke blanketing the U.S. Northeast in more than 20 years, according to private forecasting service AccuWeather.

In New York, which spent much of Wednesday covered in a sickly haze, air remained some of the worst in the world on Thursday, with pollution similar to that found in perennially smoggy cities such as Dhaka and Delhi, according to IQAir, a Swiss technology company.

Still, though a smell of burning wood lingered, the skies were beginning to brighten on Thursday afternoon. After two days in which schools called off outdoor activities, including sports practices and recess, New York’s public school system announced that its more than 1 million students would shift to remote learning on Friday.

The haze and low visibility prompted aviation officials to halt incoming flights to major airports in New York and Philadelphia from the Northeast, Mid-Atlantic region and Ohio for a second day. All flights bound for the airport in Newark, New Jersey, a major New York-area airport, were delayed.

Smoky conditions are likely to persist until Sunday, when a new storm system shifts the direction of prevailing winds and brings a chance of rainfall in parts of the country nearing drought conditions, National Weather Service meteorologist Peter Mullinax said.

Canadian cities including Ottawa, Toronto and Montreal have also experienced smoke in recent days, as blazes rage in both the east and west of the country.

The country is enduring its worst-ever start to wildfire season. Thousands of Canadians have been forced from their homes and about 3.8 million hectares (9.4 million acres) have already burned, roughly 15 times the 10-year average, according to federal Minister of Emergency Preparedness Bill Blair.

(Reporting by Kanishka Singh in Washington and Tyler Clifford in New YorkAdditional reporting by Gabriella Borter, Trevor Hunnicutt, Brad Brooks and Susan HeaveyWriting by Joseph AxEditing by Jonathan Oatis, Frances Kerry and Alistair Bell)

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