Culture

The Bushfire Smoke Isn’t Going Anywhere, So Here’s How To Deal With It

There's only one type of face mask that's effective.

NSW bushfires face mask

Hazy skies, burning eyes and apocalyptic bushfires are becoming the new normal for those on Australia’s east coast.

But while it may look like the end of days this is just the beginning, with the Bureau of Meteorology telling Junkee they expect the smoke to hang around for weeks yet.

And according to the NSW Department of Environment, these bushfires have caused some of the highest air pollution ever seen in the state.

In the last few weeks both Sydney and Brisbane have recorded air quality worse than Beijing — and no offence to Beijing, but that’s when you know things are bad.

“NSW has experienced other periods of poor air quality that lasted several weeks, including the 1994 Sydney bushfires and the Black Christmas bushfires of Dec 2001/Jan 2002,” an environmental department spokesperson said.

“This event however is the longest and the most widespread in our (60 years of) records.

“Between 11 November and 3 December 2019, air quality in Sydney was measured as hazardous for 14 days.”

What Impact Does Bushfire Smoke Have?

Bushfire smoke is made up of a few things including tiny particles and gases like carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide.

Larger particles are usually trapped in the nose and throat and swallowed, but particles smaller than 2.5 micrometers can reach the lungs and cause more serious health effects.


People with existing health conditions like asthma, bronchitis and emphysema are particularly at risk.

In a statement to Junkee a NSW Health spokesperson said the number of people in hospital last week with asthma or breathing problems was, not surprisingly, higher than usual across the state.

“Smoke might cause no more than eye or throat irritation for most people, but those with known respiratory conditions, like asthma, need to be cautious,” they said.

Those with asthma and other conditions should make sure to always carry their medication and follow their action plan.

What Do The Experts Say?

This morning Doctors For The Environment Australia released a statement saying the health profession is concerned not enough is being done to mitigate and prepare for the health impacts of climate change.

They’ve also been busy shading our political leaders on Twitter:

In October the World Medical Association called for physicians to pressure their governments to go carbon neutral by 2030 to limit the “life-threatening” impacts on health.

Groups across Australia, including the Australian Medical Association, the Royal Australasian College of Physicians and Australasian College for Emergency Medicine, have since declared climate change to be a health emergency.

So, What Can You Do To Limit Exposure?

Obviously, the best way to reduce your exposure is to stay inside with the doors and windows shut. If you have air conditioning turn it on — that can help filter out particles from indoor air.

People are also urged to avoid any outdoor physical activity (as if I need any more excuses).

Unfortunately most of us don’t have the luxury of staying inside all day. If you are planning to head out don’t bother investing in a normal face mask; they’re basically a waste of time. There is one type of mask out there designed to filter out a meaningful level of air pollution, called a P2 mask.

However, these need to be fitted correctly with an airtight seal to work. If any air leaks in they’re pretty much useless, and beards make this basically impossible.

Paper and cloth masks have become a more common sight around Sydney, but they don’t provide any sort of filter for the microscopic particles found in bushfire smoke.

You can check out the latest air quality index here.