Bushfires 2020: What to do when it's smoky outside

Living Well | Sue Hewitt | Posted on 15 January 2020

Inhaling bushfire smoke can pose serious health risks, experts warn.

As bushfire smoke spreads across the state rendering air quality poor or very poor in many areas, including Melbourne suburbs, experts warn residents that smoke can pose serious health risks especially to elderly, young and those prone to asthma. 

The extent of how bad Victoria’s smoke hazard is hit the headlines this week when Wangaratta beat polluted Asian cities and recorded the worst air quality in the world, according to the World Air Quality Index project.

Although the smoke haze continually changes depending on such things as rain and wind, any relief is likely to be short-term until the end of the fire season. (Click here for more on the Victorian bushfires)

Sun setting on a street

Exposure to this unprecedented, prolonged bushfire smoke can be dangerous and experts are warning people, especially the vulnerable, to take extra care.

Ambulance Victoria has already had a spike in calls from people with breathing problems, while the Australasian College of Emergency Medicine says hospital emergency departments are struggling to keep up with the demand for bushfire smoke-related illnesses.

US research recently found that even short-term exposure to fine particle pollution led health conditions like septicaemia, kidney failure and urinary tract infections, which haven’t previously been linked to air pollution.

Why is bushfire smoke harmful to our health?

Bushfire smoke is a complex mix of particles and gases and its fine particles can be absorbed into the bloodstream triggering adverse cardiovascular effects and even death, according to Doctors for the Environment Australia.

It says more heart attacks and cardiovascular deaths had been reported in Melbourne and Sydney on high bushfire smoke days, and the respiratory irritants in smoke can significantly contribute to acute and chronic illnesses, including asthma.

Melbourne University senior lecturer Dr Gabriel da Silva says the most damaging element of bushfire smoke is small particles that enter the lungs and bloodstream.

“You can see the larger pieces of ash with the naked eye, but it’s what you can’t see that is more harmful,” he says.

Gabriel, who specialises in atmospheric chemistry, says the most dangerous particles are smaller than 2.5 micrometres. For comparison, the width of a human hair is about 70 micrometres. He says these particles cause inflammation in the body worsening existing medical conditions like respiratory and heart conditions.

In the long term, exposure to high levels of air pollution causes heart conditions, cancer and strokes, based on the experience in countries with bad air pollution, he says. He says an intense forest fire can spew out enormous smoke clouds which can be blown several hundred kilometres, and vulnerable people should stay indoors.

Most face masks offer little protection from smoke, including the special P2 filter masks, he says.

“It [the P2 mask] only works if you push the air through the filter, but if you can’t get an airtight seal between the face and the mask, such as if you have a beard, then it won’t work,” he says.

What to do when it’s smoky outside

If you see or smell smoke outside, you should stay inside, according to the EPA. But only if it’s safe to do so.

  • Keep your windows and doors shut.
  •  Switch your air conditioner to ‘recirculate’.
  • Take a break from the smoky conditions – for example, visit a friend or go to a large air-conditioned location.
  • Air out your house when the smoke clears.
  • Look out for children, older people, and others at risk.
  • Keep pets inside with clean water and food. Keep pets’ bedding inside if possible.

When it’s smoky, take care of your health, especially if you're sensitive to air pollution.

Having difficulty breathing? Try:

  • Reducing physical activity.
  • Following your treatment plan if you have a heart or lung condition.
  • Following your asthma action plan.
  • Seeing your doctor or call NURSE-ON-CALL on 1300 606 024 if you’re worried about your symptoms.
  • Calling 000 if you experience chest tightness or difficulty breathing.
  • If you're in an area impacted by a bushfire, follow your bushfire plan.
National Asthma Council Australia chief executive Siobhan Brophy says people with asthma, hay fever and other respiratory problems should take extra care during periods of extreme smoke haze. These are her top five tips for smoke-related asthma flares:
  • Always have a reliever inhaler with you.
  • Always follow your written asthma action plan, if you have one.
  • Reduce your exposure to smoke or pollen by staying indoors with doors or windows closed.
  • Monitor bushfire, pollen, and thunderstorm asthma forecasts to make sure you’re prepared.
  • If symptoms don’t go away or get worse take quick action by following First Aid for Asthma.