Not only have the bushfires caused acute and irrevocable loss for families and properties, the bushfire smoke stretches far and wide. This smoke poses an increased risk for the health of many Australians across the eastern coast.
The forecast of strong winds, and more hot and dry conditions suggests the bushfires may continue to burn for weeks or even months.
So what does this mean for your health, and what can you do about it?
Bushfire smoke consists of ultra-fine particles (P2.5) that cast an orange-red sky, and can enter homes, cars and offices making it difficult to avoid. These particles can travel for hundreds of kilometres and linger in the air. They are invisible to the human eye and tiny enough to travel deep into the lungs and enter the bloodstream.
Aggravating asthma, exacerbating existing respiratory conditions increased hospital admissions. Children, the elderly and people with existing breathing conditions are most sensitive. Yet healthy people can also experience nasal and sinus symptoms, sore throats, irritation in the eyes.
If they reach, our body may recognises them as foreign and attacks in the form of an inflammatory response. Strong winds are also lifting more pollen into the air causing an increase in asthma attacks known as "thunderstorm asthma".
Long-term exposure to air pollution is similar to smoking. However the specific impacts are unknown, as there hasn't been any long-term studies. Most healthy people will recover as the smoke disappears. Research suggest a few people may develop conditions including kidney failure and urinary tract infections (UTIs).
However, bushfire smoke is considered less damaging than industrial pollution, as the health risks will be significantly diminished with rainfall and as the bushfires end.
Best Practices to Protect Your Health
1. Check the Air Quality Index (AQI) for your area. It provides hourly updates on the level of pollutants and visibility on a scale from 0 to 200+. 0 is very good, and above 200 is deemed hazardous. For no expected health risks, the reading should lie below 100.
2. Most cloth or paper face masks are useless as the material is not fine enough to filter out the extremely small particles (P2.5). They also leave a space between the mask and your face where these particles can enter your respiratory tract. If you need to be outdoors, only P2 mask sold in hardware stores are able to filter these particles. Check here our dust mask ranking.
3. It is best to stay indoors with windows and doors shut. When using air-conditioning, choose to re-circulate internal air rather than introduce polluted air from outside. Check here our air purifier ranking.
4. Avoid intensive outdoor exercise to limit your exposure to the smoke. Manage treatment of any other health conditions. If you have asthma, make sure you have your puffer.
5. Pets: The smoke can be even more harmful to pets, especially in combination with heat stress. Keep your pet(s) indoors and look out for panting, couching or difficulty breathing. Ring your vet if concerned.
6. Once the smoke clears, open your windows to release trapped pollution.