NEWS
13/12/2019 2:18 PM AEDT | Updated 13/12/2019 3:30 PM AEDT

What Are Schools Doing To Protect Kids From Bushfire Smoke Pollution?

Parents are concerned about their children's health as authorities warn of continued poor air quality this bushfire season.

courtneyk via Getty Images

Erin Remblance is concerned about her six-year-old daughter’s health as authorities warn of continued air pollution this bushfire season.

The mother from Seaforth in Sydney’s North said she’s been keeping her three children indoors as much as possible, and wants to know if “there’s a standard issued to all schools regarding hazardous air quality”.

“It’s really frightening,” the member of Australian Parents for Climate Action told HuffPost Australia. “It’s unprecedented, I’ve never seen Sydney like this before and it’s really sad for them [the kids] that they’re stuck indoors and unable to play outside because the air is such bad quality.”

PETER PARKS via Getty Images
Haze blanketed Sydney on December 10.

What Are Schools Doing To Protect Children?

Remblance’s daughter is in kindergarten at Balgowlah North Public School, where staff have been communicating with parents about lunch breaks and activities that usually involve the children being outdoors.

“They’ve been really good,” she said. “They’ve been issuing and monitoring updates in the morning and letting us know whether the children will be able to play outside or not on that day.”

“I definitely think that there could be more done,” she then added. “At which point do we give them face masks if the air quality is so poor? What do we do with children who have breathing difficulties or conditions like asthma and that sort of thing?”

Department Of Education’s Advice To Schools

According to the NSW Department of Education, schools have been advised “to look for ways to minimise exposure and adverse effects of bushfire smoke”, while the department updates its School Safety page on a regular basis.

“NSW public schools are advised to consider the potential health implication for staff and students on days where there is poor air quality and plan their school activities appropriately,” a NSW Department of Education spokesperson said in a statement to HuffPost Australia.

Some of the practical guidance the department has given schools includes, staying indoors “with windows and doors closed, or stay in air-conditioned premises, if possible”, and to also “consider cancelling sporting events and unnecessary outdoor activities”.

“In extreme situations where the entire school premises is heavily affected by smoke, schools will consider alternative arrangements for staff and students. If parents have concerns about the management of bushfire smoke at their child’s school, they are advised to speak with the Principal.”

‘Done At A School Level’

Queensland’s Department of Education said “all Queensland state schools take the health of students very seriously” and that “decisions to postpone or cancel outside activities are done at a school level, following an assessment of the risks posed by issues such as air quality, high temperatures or other environmental concerns to students”.

“During the particularly hot and smoky days currently being experienced, principals are encouraged to modify or suspend school activities as appropriate. This could include cancelling or postponing outdoor activities,” said a department spokesperson.

‘Playground Is Deserted’

“At my kids’ school you turn up, and the playground’s deserted, they go straight into class, and on those smokey days, things are cancelled,” said Sydney-based public health physican, Dr Kate Charlesworth.

“Sport and outdoor activities are cancelled and they’re in the classrooms, in the library or indoor areas. We need to do this in the short term, but several weeks of this is terrible for kids because they can’t run around and play, exercise and get fresh air.”

How Are Kids Are Impacted By Bushfire Smoke?

Many are facing Sydney’s “hazardous” pollution level that has been branded worse than Jakarta and likened to smoking a whole cigarette packet in a day.

According to Dr John Van der Kallen, “children are particularly affected” by the poor air quality. Air particles can cause sore eyes, nose and throat for many kids, and irritate the respiratory system in more serious cases.

Lung Development

“Their lungs are still growing and their bodies are still growing, so it can impair their lung development so they would never get the adequate lung growth that a child not exposed to those pollutants would have,” said the Newcastle-based rheumatologist.

Public health physician, Dr Kate Charlesworth, also explained that children “have higher respiratory rates” where “they breathe faster and deeper”, and because their organ systems are still developing, “they’re more susceptible” to the health impacts of air pollution.

“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,” she said.

“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.”

agrobacter via Getty Images
Children under the age of four and those with asthma are more at risk of respiratory issues.

Asthma 

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.

Short-Term Impacts 

Both health experts, who are members of Doctors for the Environment, Australia, said short term impacts of bushfire smoke exposure also affect children.

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

What Can Parents Do To Protect Their Children?

Asthma Australia has advised parents to “protect the health of their children when air quality levels are poor or hazardous”.

“That might include staying inside, having indoor play dates, cancelling sport activities and other outdoor events,” said CEO of Asthma Australia, Michele Goldman.

“If their child has asthma, create a clean air shelter inside, or take them regularly to a facility that has recycled air conditioning like the cinema or library.  Parents may consider an air purifier but ensure it has a HEPA filter. I also strongly advise parents to understand how to identify an asthma attack and undertake asthma first aid.”

Can I Send Them To School?

Dr Charlesworth, said “There is no safe level of air pollution”, and reiterated, “the health messaging is stay indoors as much as you can and don’t exercise outdoors”.

She added that “for the kids who have asthma, I know a number of parents who are keeping them at home”, though Dr Van der Kallen highlighted some practicality issues.

“Where it’s worse, parents may have to think about it,” he said. “If parents are working, you can’t just have the kids at home. It’s difficult.

“I don’t think there’s any easy answers, we just have to be sensible and adapt to these changes. It’s part of our whole climate change adaptation issue. We have to learn to manage these unprecedented events.”

Can I Take Them To Saturday Sport?

For parents who are concerned about children’s ‘Saturday sport’ activities, Dr Van der Kallen said, “On the days where there’s hazardous air quality, they just have to cancel that sport. It’s just not safe”.

“Those days where it’s really hazardous, I think it’s safer not to be exercising outside,” he continued, suggesting alternatives like an indoor gym with adequate air conditioning.

Can I Take My Newborn Outside?

He advised parents of infants to be cautious as well.

“Your lungs are developing from the moment you’re born, so it’s all about exposure really. I think certainly those days where it is really bad air quality, people don’t go out walking with prams.”

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