Over 120 million people, or more than a third of the US population, were under air quality alerts Wednesday in over a dozen states spanning from the Midwest to the East Coast as a result of an immense smoke plume from hundreds of wildfires raging across Canada.

Canada is presently experiencing the most destructive wildfire season in the country’s history, a direct manifestation of the deepening climate crisis. Occurring annually from May until October, Canada’s wildfire season typically peaks in August. But only two months into the wildfire season, nearly 8 million hectares of land—close to 20 million acres—have been burned, already an all-time record for a single year. Over the last 24 hours alone, this number has increased by over 100,000 hectares.

Since the beginning of 2023, the Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Centre has recorded nearly 3,000 wildfires. At present, there are at least 477 fires burning in Canada, ranging from the country’s westernmost provinces to the furthest eastern regions. Of these fires, 237 are classified as “out of control,” 151 are officially considered “under control” and 89 fires are classified as “being held,” which means blazes are not under control, but stationary. On Wednesday, officials reported the highest number of current active fires in Quebec, 113 fires, and the second-highest in British Columbia, 94 active blazes.

Tens of thousands of people in Canada have been forced to flee their homes in the face of the raging fires, and millions more face “high risk” air quality from lingering smoke and smog.

Just three weeks after over 115 million people across the US East Coast and Canada were suddenly engulfed in toxic smog, this horrific environment has once again descended upon vast swaths of North America. Air quality index (AQI) scores have ranged from “unhealthy” to “very unhealthy” and even “hazardous.”

Chicago, Detroit, Minneapolis, Toronto and Washington D.C. were among the top 10 cities with the highest air pollution in the world on Wednesday, while other major cities reached the “very unhealthy” or “hazardous” thresholds, including St. Louis, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Milwaukee, Louisville and Indianapolis.

Smoke fills the sky reducing visibility Wednesday, June 28, 2023 in Detroit. [AP Photo/Paul Sancya]

The inhalation of fine particulate smoke produced by wildfires is known to have serious negative health effects, including triggering asthma attacks and heart attacks. Longer-term health problems also result from extended exposure and inhalation of this smoke, including lung cancer. Inhalation can also exacerbate conditions for those who recently suffered pneumonia or myocarditis, which are common conditions suffered by those infected with COVID-19. Poor air quality is a leading cause of death, killing at least 6 million people internationally every year.

Under these conditions, not even the most basic public health measures were taken to ensure the safety of the population. Despite the serious health risks, businesses and schools remained open, and industrial production continued uninterrupted throughout the vast geographic region inundated with smoke. At the federal, state and local levels, both Democratic and Republican politicians either ignored the danger or only issued perfunctory “health advisories,” which businesses flouted with impunity. At most, masking was only “encouraged,” with no explanation of the crucial importance of using a well-fitting N95 mask.

In his statement on Chicago’s air quality, newly-elected Democratic Mayor Brandon Johnson, backed by the pseudo-left Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), perfectly illustrated the neglectful, indifferent response of capitalist politicians to the lives of workers:

The City of Chicago is carefully monitoring and taking precautions as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has categorized our Air Quality Index as “unhealthy” due to Canadian wildfire smoke present in the Chicago region. We recommend children, teens, seniors, people with heart or lung disease, and individuals who are pregnant avoid strenuous activities and limit their time outdoors. For additional precautions, all Chicagoans may also consider wearing masks, limiting their outdoor exposure, moving activities indoors, running air purifiers, and closing windows. (Emphasis added.)

Everywhere the solution to this immense public health problem is presented as an individual issue. No serious protective and preventative public health measures have been taken to ensure the health and safety of the population. The Chicago Department of Public Health waited a full day before issuing an alert on the dangerous air quality and has done nothing to ensure that every resident be provided with N95 masks, improved ventilation or any other public health measures. The same can be said for every major city affected by the wildfire smoke.

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