As wildfires rage on the West Coast, Vancouver—a city normally lauded for its pristine environment—is blanketed in smoke, its air quality ranging between worst and second worst in the world over the weekend.
Smoke from wildfires in Oregon, Washington state, and California has wafted all the way across Canada and reached as far east as Toronto, but the westernmost province of British Columbia remains the worst affected part of the country.
The air pollution comes at a time when Metro Vancouver has recently been dealing with rising COVID-19 case numbers and an infestation of moths, giving it a distinctly dystopian feel.
Between Friday and Tuesday the Vancouver area consistently reported the worst air pollution rating possible—a 10+, or “Very High Risk” on B.C.’s Air Quality Health Index (AQHI), which is reported to have effects equivalent to smoking up to eight cigarettes a day.
Over the same period, the province reported 317 new cases of COVID-19 and six more deaths, part of a spike in daily cases that began in August. As of Monday, there were 1,594 active COVID-19 cases in B.C., about half from the Metro Vancouver region.
“We know that the mixture that we inhale with wildfire smoke has a number of particulates in it that cause irritation to the nose, throat, and lungs, and particularly affects people who are very young and our elders,” said B.C. Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry on Monday.
“And we know that they are the same people who can be most adversely affected by COVID-19.”
Tom Kosatsky, medical director of Environmental Health Services at the B.C. Centre for Disease Control, said it can be difficult to tell the difference between COVID-19 symptoms and effects of wildfire smoke as many of them overlap.
Dry throat and shortness of breath are common symptoms of COVID-19, and forest fire smoke can result in similar effects like coughs and headaches—but there are ways to tell the two apart.
“When people go outside and are exposed to higher concentrations of smoke than inside, they would feel worse. With COVID, they wouldn’t necessarily feel worse going outside,” Kosatsky told VICE News.
“Smoke in and of itself doesn’t cause a fever or not to be able to taste or smell—something that COVID can cause. But there is a fair degree of overlap between the two and each one can worsen the symptoms of the other.”
For those who already have the virus, however, the smoke can exacerbate their symptoms. Research has shown higher mortality rates among COVID-19 patients living in heavily polluted parts of the world.
Environment Canada meteorologist Carmen Hartt said Vancouver’s air-quality ranking appears to be worse than places like San Francisco in part because the city is away from the fires.
“When you’re close to the fires, there is a lot of turbulence and mixing, which is affecting the (air quality) sensors. What is happening here is the air is very stable, so the smoke is almost piling up in the Vancouver area,” he said.
The Vancouver area may receive some respite Thursday night and Friday after showers and wind flush out the smoke more consistently, but continuing impacts of climate change mean it’s not time to breathe a sigh of relief yet.
“I think it’s fair to say that there are possibilities we may have another multi-day smoke event before fire season is over this fall. It’s definitely something to watch out for this season and in coming years,” said Hartt.
For now, all residents in areas that have a 10+ AQHI rating are advised to avoid strenuous outdoor activities and to wear cloth masks which, according to Kosatsky, have been proven to reduce exposure to both wildfire smoke and COVID-19.
Indoors, air purifiers with a HEPA filter are recommended to best clear out particulate matter, but air conditioners can also do an adequate job of removing smoke, said Kosatsky.
Everyone is advised to keep their windows closed until the air quality improves.
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