With more than 10 million hectares of land burnt, hundreds of properties lost and thousands evacuated, the number of people exposed to bushfire smoke is greater than we’ve seen before.
For months the smoke has been affecting the air quality across large parts of New South Wales, Victoria and Australian Capital Territory. Bushfire smoke contains hundreds of different components, however it’s the fine particulate matter, known as PM2.5, that can penetrate deep into the lungs and be absorbed into the bloodstream.
Research has shown that increases in PM2.5 from bushfire smoke are associated with increased intensity and frequency of disease symptoms, increased use of asthma medication and increased respiratory hospital emergency admissions.[i]
The effects of inhaling smoke vary for each person, however high levels and prolonged exposure can be particularly harmful for people with pre-existing respiratory or cardiovascular conditions.
For people with conditions such as Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease or asthma who may normally have well-controlled symptoms, exposure to bushfire smoke can cause an exacerbation which, in some cases, can be fatal.
For those living with a lung condition, it’s important to remain vigilant and take additional precautions, School of Public Health and Community Medicine at UNSW Conjoint Professor Bin Jalaludin said.
“Make sure if you’re on medication that you’re taking it and see your GP to work out if you need to change to other forms of therapy or treatment,” he said.
“Have an updated action plan, stay indoors where possible, and avoid excessive physical activity as this will cause you to breathe faster and take more smoke into the lungs. If you feel you’re coughing more or finding it difficult to breathe, try to avoid the smoke as much as you can.”
With a spike in hospital admissions across New South Wales, Victoria and Australian Capital Territory, if you’re living with a lung condition it’s essential to prioritise your health. If you’re in an area affected by bushfire smoke, where possible you should:
- Avoid physical activity outside
- Rest more frequently and keep away from the smoke
- Follow your action plan and treatment advised by your doctor and keep your medicines close at hand
- Close windows and doors to minimise smoke in your home
- If using a facemask, ensure it’s P2
- Switch your air conditioner (if you have one) to recycle or recirculate
- Have your emergency plan ready in the event of an evacuation or the loss of essential services (such as power loss) during bushfires.
While the long-term effects of prolonged exposure to toxic smoke is unknown, Prof Jalaludin said for a healthy person, the risk is low.
“We’ve never had something so long-lasting and extensive. The acute problems may be eye and throat irritation,” Prof Jalaludin said.
“What we don’t know is what are the medium- or long-term effects. For a healthy person breathing in these levels for 3-4 months, what happens in 5 years’ time? We don’t really know if there will be increased risk of cardiovascular or respiratory conditions or diabetes.
“For people with COPD or severe asthma, it’s difficult to know if there would be long-lasting effects or just while there is smoke present in the air.
“We don’t really know how long the effect lasts for – if the smoke clears now do the lungs and the immune system go back within a couple of days? That I don’t think we know. It’s difficult to conduct studies because we can’t predict for these kind of events.”
Lung Foundation Australia CEO Mark Brooke said while long-term effects aren’t known, it’s important that while the air quality remains at a hazardous level, people living with a lung condition remain vigilant, take all their prescribed medications and avoid exposure wherever possible.
“We will continue to advocate for a comprehensive review of bushfire preparedness and the adequacy of the policy and procedures for people with lung disease,” Mr Brooke said.
A key recommendation outlined in the National Strategic Action Plan for Lung Conditions is to develop a national personalised air quality monitoring system to help individual Australians and policy makers understand current environmental conditions and breathe easier.
“In addition to fuel reduction burns, it is essential our governments implements agreed strategies to reduce the risk of fires and all the harm that comes from them,” Mr Brooke said.
“Thank you to the hundreds of health professionals, volunteers and others who are stepping in to assist the increased presentations and admissions as a consequence of the bushfire emergency and hazardous air quality.”
Using a P2 mask
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 at risk in communities affected by bushfires.
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.
Prof Jalaludin said disposable P2 masks, designed to filter out PM2.5 particles, may reduce exposure by 50-60% and must be sealed correctly around the nose and mouth to be effective.
“Wearing a P2 mask for long periods of time can be uncomfortable. They’re useful if you have to be outdoors but if you can avoid it, that would be the best thing,” he said.
For details on using a P2 mask, visit the NSW Health website, here. State and territory governments are distributing the P2 masks and providing air quality guidance within their jurisdictions.
Lung Foundation Australia’s Information and Support Centre is available to provide guidance and support and connect you with relevant support services. This free service is available Monday to Friday, 8.30am-4.30pm (QLD time). Please contact freecall 1800 654 301 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
With air pollution levels from bushfires reaching hazardous across the country, people living with lung conditions should refer to their action plan to recognise when symptoms worsen and how to take action to manage them. Actions plans are developed with your doctor and should be regularly reviewed. Download an action plan and organise an appointment with your doctor, so you have clear written instructions on how to reduce or prevent a flare-up in your symptoms.
- Australia Government Bushfire Disaster Assistance 180 22 66
Australian Capital Territory
New South Wales