Smoke from California and Oregon wildfires this week cloaked Canada’s third-largest city of Vancouver — known for its majestic mountain views and fresh ocean breezes — in the dirtiest air in the world.
Days have been spent smarting under a thick haze that has irritated eyes and throats, and sent asthmatics gasping for breath. It has also complicated COVID-19 testing.
On Friday, despite forecasted smoke-clearing rain storms, the city — 1,300km north of the biggest California fires — topped for the second time this week the World Air Quality Index for worst air, after briefly ceding first place to Portland in fire-stricken Oregon.
“I’m out of breath all the time, my chest feels like it’s exploding, I feel like I’m going to suffocate,” said Fatima Jaffer, a doctoral student at the University of British Columbia.
“I’m afraid of the long-term damage this smoke might do to my lungs and my asthma,” she added.
Authorities for the metropolitan region of 2.5 million residents have issued daily air quality warnings since Tuesday last week, with things so bad that Vancouver opened five filtered “clean air shelters.”
It is equivalent to smoking eight cigarettes a day, researchers said.
Health officials urged people to close windows and avoid strenuous exercise or outdoor activities — especially those with respiratory illness.
Jaffer, 58, said her worsening asthma added to a sense of panic and dread, as she had just recovered from COVID-19, which robbed her of her sense of smell.
She worries the smog could increase her odds of reinfection or cause new health complications.
“I’d just gotten to the place of getting over the fear of COVID-19 and felt like I could breathe again, and now I literally can’t,” she said.
It has been an “entire horrible week for air quality,” said Armel Castellan, a federal warning preparedness meteorologist. “The fine particulate has brought our Air Quality Health Index up off the charts.”
“There’s no doubt this is very massive and very concerning,” he said.
The same people are at most risk of smoke inhalation and the coronavirus, said Bonnie Henry, British Columbia’s provincial health officer.
The past month has seen British Columbia’s active COVID-19 cases surge 130 percent, hitting highs more than double those at the pandemic’s April peak.
“For many of us, there’s confusion about what symptoms are caused by smoky skies, and what symptoms are caused by COVID-19,” Henry told a news conference, “particularly for people who have underlying lung disease, asthma, heart disease and diabetes.”
Another vulnerable group is Vancouver’s more than 2,000 homeless residents, many of whom have chronic illness, a survey showed.
“If you’re outside and homeless, and surrounded by this smoke and the pandemic, you can’t get away from any of these things,” Union Gospel Mission communications manager Jeremy Hunka said. “It’s hitting a group of people that generally have been just left far more vulnerable.”
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