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Dangers of Bushfire Smoke and How it Can Affect Your Health

29 September 2020

According to a report published in the Medical Journal of Australia, bushfire smoke was responsible for 417 deaths, and more than 5000 cases of hospitalizations (cardiovascular disease emergencies, worsened respiratory conditions, and asthma flare-ups), in Eastern Australia between 2019 and 2020.

Bushfires are a common seasonal occurrence in Australia. It is a source of health challenges, especially to those very susceptible to bushfire smoke, this includes children, older adults, and those with chronic health conditions.

Bushfires burn wildlife and release dangerous bushfire smoke that reduces air quality, leaving people breathing in harmful gases and fine particles present in the smoke.

What Makes Bushfire Smoke Dangerous

Bushfire smoke is a mixture of gases (carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, and minor amounts of sulphur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide) and particulate matter. It is the presence of particulate matter in bushfire smoke that makes it dangerous for breathing.

Particulate matter consists of tiny particles of soot and ashes from burnt wildlife that get dispersed and carried in the air. When you breathe in these fine particles they can irritate your nose, throat, and eyes, and make you uncomfortable.

Some of these particles, especially those less than 2.5 micrometres in size, known as PM2.5 are quite tiny and invisible; they can penetrate the lungs and into the blood, where they can lead to systemic inflammations and worsening conditions for people with existing lung and heart conditions. These complications can be fatal for older adults.

How Bushfire Smoke can Affect Your Health

Bushfire smoke can cause a runny nose, sneezing, coughing, teary eyes, anxiety, and stress. Getting exposed to bushfire smoke over a long period can increase the risks of lung diseases because of the constant irritation to the lungs. 

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These symptoms are often not too serious for healthy individuals. However, some people are more vulnerable to bushfire smoke than others, to whom exposure to bushfire smoke can cause adverse and often life-threatening complications.

  • People with respiratory diseases: For persons with respiratory disease conditions like asthma, bronchitis, or emphysema, exposure to smoke can trigger flare-ups that can put them in life-threatening situations. 
  • People with Heart Diseases: Exposure to bushfire smoke can cause chest pain, irregular heartbeats, stroke, and even heart attacks in people with heart diseases.
  • Pregnant Women: Pregnant women are at higher risks of bushfire smoke because they breathe at an increased rate compared to women who are not pregnant. The increased breathing rate is necessary to supply oxygen to the developing foetus. Prolonged exposure to bushfire smoke can cause impaired baby development as well as pregnancy complications including, gestational diabetes, high blood pressure, and premature birth.
  • Elderly People: Breathing in smoky air can worsen the health conditions of aged people, especially those above 65. This is because breathing the PM2.5 in bushfire smoke can trigger systemic inflammation which could make their conditions deteriorate.
  • Children and Babies: Babies and children can be severely irritated by exposure to bushfire smoke. This is because they have tiny developing airways and breathe in more air compared to their body size. As they can breathe in more air, they also breathe in more particulate matter and irritants.

How to Protect Yourself and Your Family from Bushfire Smoke

1. Keeps Your Eyes on Air Quality Information

The Air Quality Index measures the quality of outdoor air. It is usually released by the local health department. You should always check the AQI report for your locality and then plan your activities around it.

If the AQI is very poor or hazardous, you may decide to postpone outdoor activities and wait until there’s a favourable report. Especially during the bushfire season.

Apps like AirRater can help you monitor the air quality and PM2.5 levels in your location.

2. Stay Indoors

It is important you stay indoors much more often during periods of hazardous air quality, especially if you are aged, pregnant, have young children, have a respiratory or cardiovascular problem, or are sensitive to bushfire smoke.

Keep doors and windows closed, and fill in gaps around windows and doors if your house is old and prone to leaks. Only open up your home when the air quality conditions get better.

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3. Avoid Source of Indoor Pollution

It is not enough to stay indoors if you are going to engage in activities that increase indoor air pollution. Avoid anything that may reduce indoor air quality in your home, this includes smoking, burning of candles, and incense sticks. You should ventilate when the air outside is cleaner.

4. Follow Your Doctor’s Advice

If you have a health condition (asthma, diabetes, heart and lung diseases) that puts you at a greater risk of bushfire smoke complications, you should seek your doctor’s advice and stick to health guidelines during the bushfire season.

Keep adequate medications, especially your prescription medications and inhalers in stock, so that you will not have to take risks if you run out of them.

5. Use Air Purifiers and Detoxifiers in Your Home

Indoor air purifiers, especially those with HEPA (high-efficiency particulate air) filters can help reduce indoor air smoke levels and increase indoor air quality by filtering off fine particles and irritants in indoor air.

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Air purifiers work best when they are matched to the size of your room and the room is well-sealed up to avoid recontamination from outside.

An indoor air detoxifier like VBreathe do not only filter fine particle pollutants, they can also detoxify indoor air by significantly reducing airborne toxins, allergens, mould spores, and bacteria.

6. Use Facemasks

If you must go outside during periods of hazardous air quality, you should wear a facemask. P2 and N95 facemasks that can fit well around the nose and mouth are what is recommended because they can filter out particulate matter and reduce your exposure to bushfire smoke.

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Fabric facemasks and handkerchiefs do not protect you from breathing in fine particles of bushfire smoke.

So, you should not improvise but use the appropriately fitting facemask, especially if you cannot avoid being outside during periods of hazardous air quality.

Wrapping Up

Bushfire smoke reduces air quality and can cause serious health problems or make existing health conditions worse.

It is important to protect yourself and your family, especially those who are sensitive to bushfire smoke. 

By following healthy indoor air quality practices in your home, as well as adhering to public health guidelines during the bushfire season, you can reduce the risks and exposure to harmful bushfire smoke, and as well avoid the complications that can arise as a result of breathing the invisible PM2.5 particulate matter that makes bushfire smoke very dangerous to your health.

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