explainer

'Is bushfire smoke the new normal?' All your questions, answered.

As Australia’s East Coast has been blanketed in smoke from the NSW and QLD bushfires, Australians have choked on the air.

Ash has fallen from the sky. Sales for face masks have skyrocketed. And questions about when this will end has loomed.

So, we asked environment and health experts all the simple questions we keep asking ourselves.

What does hazardous air actually mean for our health?

“For the majority of people that are otherwise healthy, the level of pollution we’ve got at the moment is more than likely just going to cause irritable symptoms. So things like a cough, itchy skin or itchy eyes,” Professor Brian Oliver from the Woolcock Institute of Medical Research tells Mamamia.

“But for people with asthma or other respiratory diseases or cardiovascular disease, the pollution can actually cause their disease to get much worse and then they end up in hospital.”

Is wearing face masks actually necessary to protect ourselves from the smoke?

“It definitely is. The trouble is that we don’t know which face masks are effective and which ones are useful,” Professor Oliver says.

“There’s lots of different face masks from very cheap ones to expensive ones. We know the expensive ones [about $150] work – but they are perhaps too expensive for people. Whereas the $2, $10 or $30 ones, we don’t know which of these actually work and which don’t work.”

Dr Christine Cowie from the Centre for Air pollution, energy and health Research, adds that “P2/N95 masks are effective if fitted properly, but make it harder to breathe”.

“Many cloth and paper masks do not work well to filter out particles associated with bushfire smoke,” Dr Cowie says.

sydney fireworks cancelled
Australia's East Coast is blanketed in smoke. Image: Getty.

What is the long-term impact of the smoke on our health?

"We're not entirely certain yet. If the pollution was occurring day-in-day-out, every day of the year, we would know what the long term impacts are because we can look at countries that are heavily polluted and can make those sorts of comparisons," Professor Oliver explains.

"But this medium term exposure that we've got at the moment - where it's one or two months a year - we're not really sure what the impacts are going to be in the future.

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"What we do know, is those impacts are not going to be beneficial to anyone. So they are going to be bad, we just don't know how bad."

Is it okay to exercise outside when air levels are at hazardous level?

"No. Basically when the Department of Primary Industry [DPI] issues a health alert to say that the air quality is hazardous, it's hazardous for everyone. So if people do want to exercise, they should try and do it indoors at a place where they can't smell the smoke," Professor Oliver says.

"It is not advisable to to go outside for a run in the smoke."

How do we minimise exposure to bushfire smoke?

Dr Christine Cowie explains that it is best to stay indoors, avoid outdoor exercise, and use indoor air cleaners.

"Ensure the cleaner has a HEPA filter and make sure the room is the right size for the air cleaner," Dr Cowie adds.

Should we be expecting the rest of summer to be filled with bushfires and smoke?

University of New South Wales climate scientist Dr Sophie Lewis tells Mamamia that "the Bureau of Meteorology is warning of a hot and dry summer to come."

"Emergency services have said that the current fires are likely to burn for some time to come. Because of these factors, we shouldn’t expect any improvement yet and we should be planning for smoke and fire warnings to continue for our summer holidays."

Listen: Mamamia's daily news podcast The Quicky talk to the CSIRO who have done the most  comprehensive climate predictions for Australia on record. Post continues after podcast. 

Is bushfire smoke the new normal?

"We should be expecting longer and more severe fire seasons," Professor Lewis says.

"Although we’ve always had fires, there is a clear trend that fire weather is increasing. The bushfire seasons are now longer and there are more extreme and catastrophic fire danger days.

"Plus, more regions are experiencing high fire danger days that previously didn’t experience these."

What can we actually do about it?

"Get your bushfire plan ready and practised, work out your local ABC radio station, download the Fires Near Me app. If you are really keen and have time, join the RFS or SES," Professor Lewis says.

"Talk to people around you about your worries about the fires and our kids’ futures. Talk to people about how you are worried about the health impacts and how our beautiful natural environment and animals are suffering. Talk to people about how our RFS volunteers (heroes!) aren’t getting the resources and support they need."

Have these bushfires been caused by climate change?

"The strongest link between changes in bushfires and climate change are from increase in the background temperatures. Future climate change is likely to increase hot temperature extremes. That means that the number of high, very high, extremes and catastrophic fire danger days is expected to increase in the future," Professor Lewis explains.

"Climate change has already influenced the likelihood and severity of fires we have experienced. For example, the November 2018 Queensland fires have been linked to climate change in scientific literature."

Feature Image: Getty.


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