HEALTH
17/12/2019 9:36 AM AEDT | Updated 14/01/2020 1:31 AM AEDT

Here's What Smoke Pollution Does To Your Body

Doctors have called for the government to address the “public health emergency” caused by Australia's worst bushfire season.

PETER PARKS via Getty Images
As smoke pollution continues during Australia’s worst bushfire season, doctors have called for the government to address the resultant “public health emergency”. 

As smoke pollution continues from the bushfires doctors from 22 health and medical groups have called for the government to address the resultant “public health emergency”. 

Air quality in some areas of Sydney and New South Wales has been up to 11 times the base ‘hazardous’ level and likened to smoking a whole cigarette packet in a day.

“This is a public health emergency,” said Climate and Health Alliance Executive Director Fiona Armstrong

“Both the Federal and the State Government of NSW must prioritise action to help reduce risks to people’s health from the air pollution from the bushfires and to implement measures to help alleviate the health and climate crisis.”

According to Dr Kate Charlesworth “there is no safe level of air pollution”, with children, the elderly and those with pre-existing lung and heart diseases being more prone to “climate-related health effects”. 

“To protect health, we need to shift rapidly away from fossil fuels and towards cleaner, healthier and safer forms of energy,” said the public health physician who is a member of Doctors for the Environment Australia. 

What Smoke Pollution Does To Your Body

Whether or not you have an existing lung or heart condition like asthma, emphysema and angina, doctors say Australians can be affected by the fine particles in smoke.

The particles can cause sore eyes, nose and throat for many people, and irritate the respiratory system in more serious cases.

Eyes, Nose And Throat

Short term impacts of bushfire smoke exposure can affect children and adults.

“Stinging eyes, throat irritation, runny nose, bronchitis, shortness of breath, wheezing – all of those things. They are more immediate health impacts,” explained Dr Charlesworth.

Newcastle-based rheumatologist Dr John Van der Kallen said those without a pre-existing disease will most likely be affected by the shorter-term effects, providing the smoke doesn’t continue for a prolonged period. 

“Your body can repair quite well. I think exposure like that for someone who is otherwise healthy, it’s likely that won’t cause you any long term issues,” he told HuffPost Australia.

“But if it goes on for months, then it probably would make you more susceptible to airways problems down the track.”

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Lungs

More medium to long-term issues can include worsened asthma for asthmatics, and increased chances of strokes, heart and lung disease for those with a pre-existing illness.

“Bushfire smoke is made up of water vapour and gases and particulate matter. What we’re really concerned about now is really small particles, particulate matter 2.5 and smaller,” said Dr Charlesworth.

“They’re the ones now that we understand can get right down into your lungs and actually can get into your bloodstream and cause these sorts of inflammatory throughout the body.”

Asthmatics 

Those with asthma have been advised to stay indoors and follow their asthma action plan as they’re more prone to flare-ups. 

“Poor air quality is directly linked to triggering acute asthma flare-ups, respiratory and cardiac conditions,” said an Asthma Australia spokesperson. “This can lead to life threatening attacks or illness lasting weeks or even months.”

Children under the age of four and those with asthma are more at risk of respiratory issues, however Dr Van der Kallen said “we’re seeing new cases of asthma in people and children who have never had it before, so this is a big concern”.

“A lot of the large particles from fires will deposit more in the upper airways which means that the trachea is then irritated by those pollutants, causing the asthma,” he explained.

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When You Exercise

Health experts have also warned people of the dangers of exercising outside.

“When you are exercising, you take more deep breaths in and increase your heart rate,” Dr Beau Frigault, QLD chair of Doctors for the Environment Australia told HuffPost Australia. 

“It just promotes taking in more particles deep down into your lungs where they’re more likely to impact those deeper tissues and get into the bloodstream and head towards the heart.

“So that’s why we tell people not to exercise outdoors when bushfires are happening. You can do it inside a gym where it’s air conditioned. That’s more favourable than doing it outside.” 

Mark Kolbe via Getty Images

Mental Health 

Dr Van der Kallen acknowledged eco anxiety is a reality amidst the climate crisis and these bushfires. People are experiencing “stress and anxiety”, particularly because they can’t be physically active outdoors. 

“It’s affecting everyone and then some people can’t go and exercise as much so that tends to make people less fit,” he said.

“Their joints hurt more and then they’re worried about how long this is going to go on for. All that stress and anxiety doesn’t help anything.” 

How To Protect Yourself From Bushfire Smoke 

Work From Home 

“The best things people can do is to stay inside when the air levels are hazardous,” said Dr Vickers, emphasising this advice applies to “even healthy people, not just people with asthma and pre-existing illnesses”.

The Fair Work Ombudsman states on its website that “natural disasters often result in employees requiring time off to care for themselves or their family.

“Employers should keep in mind the health and wellbeing of their staff when granting access to leave entitlements.”

Such entitlements could include personal/carer’s leave or compassionate leave, with the National Employment Standards (NES) requiriing an employee to notify their employer if they are taking such leave. After being notified, the employer “may require the employee to provide evidence to support the leave period”.

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Wear A P2 Face Mask 

Dr Vickers recommends a P2 mask be worn in these conditions, because anything else is “totally useless” and “will actually fill up with air pollution over time and become less effective”.

“The best thing’s to have a perfect airtight seal on your face,” he said. “If you breathe out and air escapes through the side, it’s not working.” 

NSW Health Director of Environmental Health, Dr Richard Broome said “the main concern with smoke is the very fine PM2.5 particles, which are so small they pass through most types of mask”.

“A P2 mask does filter out these particles, but is only effective if there is a good fit and an air-tight seal around the mouth and nose. Evidence shows that this is difficult to achieve in practice, so they may not provide the benefit people are hoping for.”

Dr Vickers agreed, saying “even the P2 masks are not filtering things out like carbon monoxide and “harmful chemicals” found in bushfire smoke.

Don Arnold via Getty Images

Exercise Indoors 

It may sound obvious, but working out indoors is your best bet. 

However, it’s worth finding out if your gym is well circulated so you can best avoid outdoor smoke and air particles. 

“The best option is to do your activity indoors but it’s sometimes dependent on how those facilities work,” said Dr Frigault.

“Air conditioning still brings in outside air into the home or building. So if that air conditioning isn’t set up to recycle the air that’s inside, it’s not necessarily going to be that much better. So doing any kind of strenuous exercise may not be that beneficial. If you know your gym is relatively well circulated then usually that’s pretty safe.”

Weather Warning 

On Monday the Bureau of Meterology warned that several areas across Australia will face heatwaves this week. 

“We’re expecting large areas of inland South Australia, Victoria and New South Wales to experience temperatures in the mid to high 40s,” said Bureau meteorologist Sarah Scully.

“For many areas, severe to extreme heatwave conditions will be felt, so it’s important people follow the advice of health authorities, stay up to date with the latest forecasts and warnings from the Bureau and remember to check in on any vulnerable family and friends.”

The NSW Rural Fire Service also advised there are increased fire dangers forecast for this week.