The bushfire disaster has affected Australians more than anticipated. Land burnt, properties were lost and animals died, and the smoke has exposed communities to dangerous respiratory issues.
With more than 10 million hectares of land burnt, hundreds of properties lost, millions of animals dead and thousands evacuated, the number of people exposed to bushfire smoke after the fire is also greater than ever seen before.
Throughout the past months, the smoke has been affecting the air quality across large parts of NSW, VIC and ACT.
The NSW Department of Environment uses an Air Quality Index (AQI), which measures the amount of particulate matter, or microscopic pollutants, in the atmosphere to inform the public about pollution.
Source: ABC news
Key findings include:
- The air quality in parts of Sydney decreased dramatically in November
- In some areas, the air quality went from the equivalent of smoking half a cigarette each day to almost 10. There are days when the AQI hit around 669, which is the equivalent of smoking 30 cigarettes
- Yet experts say little is known about the long-term health effects of prolonged exposure to bushfire smoke
While the NSW Government measures several different categories of particulate matter, PM2.5 is one of most concerns for people’s health.
Bushfire smoke contains hundreds of different components, however it is the PM2.5, that can go deep into the lungs and be absorbed into the bloodstream, which may later initiate a series of inflammations that could simultaneously affect multiple organs.
Director of Environmental Health at NSW Health, Dr Richard Broome, said they have seen an increase in the number of patients with respiratory issues presenting emergency departments.
Especially, during the week ending November 22, there were around 2,230 ambulance calls for breathing problems, which is a 22.5 percent increase from Sydney’s weekly average.
A recent study, published in the British Medical Journal, found that short-term exposure to fine particles of pollution is linked to hospital admissions for a wider range of medical conditions.
The researchers found air pollution shared a connection with not only lung cancer and heart attacks but also septicaemia, UTIs and infection.
The result from the research concluded that the increase in PM2.5 from bushfire smoke is associated with increased intensity and frequency of disease symptoms, increased use of asthma medication and increased respiratory hospital emergency admissions.
The effects of inhaling smoke vary for each person, however, for people with pre-existing respiratory or cardiovascular conditions, high levels and prolonged exposure can be extremely harmful.
School of Public Health and Community Medicine at UNSW Conjoint Professor Bin Jalaludin said that, for those living with a lung condition, it is important to stay strong and take additional precautions, stay indoors where possible, and avoid excessive physical activity as this will cause them to breathe faster, which causes more smoke go into their lungs.
It is suggested that people living in areas affected by bushfire smoke, they could try to reduce (or avoid) physical activity outside, use the P2 masks, rest more frequently and keep away from the smoke as well as close windows and doors to minimise smoke in the house.
While the long-term effects of prolonged exposure to toxic smoke is unknown, Prof Jalaludin said for a healthy person, the risk is low.
However, the medium- or long-term effects still remain unknown. For a healthy person breathing in these levels for 3-4 months, what will happen in 5 years’ time is hard to project.
For people with COPD or severe asthma, it is also difficult to know if there would be long-lasting effects since it is hard to conduct tests for these events.
In response to the ongoing bushfires, the Australian Government announced it would be supplying more than 1.8 million P2 face masks to assist frontline workers and those living in affected communities.
Acting Chief Medical Officer, Professor Paul Kelly, said available supplies of P2 masks should be allocated as a priority to those most at risk of significant health effects from smoke, including people with existing heart or lung conditions.
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