- Written by Nadine Youssef
- BBC News, Toronto
High risk air quality warnings have been issued to millions of people across North America due to ongoing wildfires in Canada.
Major cities in Ontario and Quebec, including Toronto and surrounding areas, are blanketed in wildfire smoke.
The smoke reached New York City and Connecticut, where the air quality was rated “unhealthy.”
Much of the smoke comes from Quebec, where 160 fires are burning.
Environment Canada issued its strongest warning on Tuesday for Ottawa, deeming air quality in the Canadian capital an “extremely significant risk” to people’s health.
In Toronto and surrounding areas, the air quality is rated “high risk”.
Meanwhile, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has rated the air quality across much of the northeastern US as “unhealthy,” especially for people who already have respiratory issues.
Air quality warnings cover much of New York City and Connecticut. It also extends as far north as Boston and as far south as Pittsburgh and Washington, DC.
In New York, images taken Tuesday morning showed an orange haze covering the city skyline caused by wildfire smoke from Canada that traveled south.
Public health officials have warned people to exercise outside and reduce their exposure to smoke as much as possible, as the air poses both immediate and long-term health risks.
And deteriorating air quality has also forced at least one district in Quebec — the Atikamekw community of Opitciwan, 350 kilometers (217 miles) north of Montreal — to move people with asthma and other respiratory problems away from the smoke.
Canada continues to see a more active wildfire season than usual. Federal officials warned Monday that this summer could bring Canada’s largest fires yet because of the dry and hot conditions expected for much of the season.
Fires across the country have already burned more than 3.3 million hectares of land – an area 12 times the 10-year average for this time of year.
Thousands of people have been evacuated across the country, including in Quebec, where fires have consumed about 200,000 hectares so far.
Major fires also occurred in British Columbia, Alberta, Ontario, Nova Scotia and the Northwest Territories.
How does wildfire smoke affect your health?
Experts say exposure to wildfire smoke can cause a range of health problems.
Matthew Adams, a University of Toronto professor and director of its Center for Urban Environments, said the immediate effects of inhaling wildfire smoke include shortness of breath, elevated pulse, chest pain, or inflammation of the eyes, nose, and throat.
Prof Adams told the BBC: “In these days of high levels of air pollution, we are going to see an increase in hospital visits.” “And the people who visit the hospital usually have a pre-existing respiratory illness.”
Prof Adams said bushfire smoke has also been linked to serious, long-term health problems such as cancer or lung disease, specifically for people who live in areas that see frequent bushfires.
He said this is caused by small particles in the smog, which can enter the bloodstream and other parts of the human body, causing possible DNA mutations and other health problems.
Professor Adams added that some studies had also shown that prolonged exposure to bushfire smoke could affect pregnant women and their unborn children.
For people who live in cities far from the fires but under current air warnings, Professor Adams advised people to limit outdoor exercise to avoid breathing in bushfire smoke.
He said, “Don’t worry too much about it.” “Stay indoors and limit your exposure.”
But in areas near fires, Professor Adams recommended wearing an N95 mask outside to prevent inhaling most smoke particles.
He also advised installing Hepa filters and better ventilation inside the home to reduce exposure.
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