As the world warms, disasters collide. That’s happening right now, as health experts warn that exposure to wildfire smoke across North America increases the risks of catching Covid-19 and worsens the impacts for people who already have or are particularly susceptible to the virus.

“Exposure to air pollution from wildfire smoke can increase susceptibility to Covid and other respiratory diseases,” says Kristie Ebi, a climate and health professor at the University of Washington.

Here’s how it works: Wildfire smoke contains very small particles called PM 2.5, which can get inhaled and stuck in the body, causing irritation and ultimately affecting one’s immune system. These particles can “make you more prone to lung infections, including SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid-19,” warns the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on its Wildfire Smoke and Covid-19 webpage.

This means the millions of people in Canada and the US are currently at an elevated risk of catching Covid, thanks to the smoke from hundreds of wildfires raging in Canada. For three days this week, air quality in New York City was among the worst in the world, according to the World Air Quality Index. Many cities and states have issued air alerts because of the smoke, which isn’t expected to clear up until early next week. Poor air quality has also resulted in the grounding of flights, cancellation of Major League Baseball games and other local disruptions.

People who are already suffering from Covid are also at greater risk of experiencing the myriad health impacts associated with short-term exposure to wildfire smoke, including but not limited to: coughing, scratchy throat, runny nose, chest pain, headaches, asthma attacks, fatigue, wheezing and breathing difficulties, and heart attacks.

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