OXYGEN FILES: Usually in January, there are kids everywhere in my little Riverina town. Kids on scooters and bikes and skateboards. Kids at the local pool. Kids out with dogs and basketballs or playing a bit of hit-and-giggle at the town tennis court.
Older people take walks in the early mornings or early evenings when it’s a little cooler, or potter around their gardens deadheading roses and watering ferneries.
Not this summer. Between the extreme heat days and the smoke and the general level of fear and anxiety, it was like the zombie apocalypse came but no-one reported it.
The mood on the main street was subdued. People were tired, worn down and worried, trying to keep up with where the fires are now, how near they are, and what donations are most needed now by the region’s RFS brigades, fire-affected communities, drought-affected farmers and injured wildlife.
We stayed inside, glued to emergency broadcasts and alerting apps. We kept our kids inside. We cancelled trips to holiday destinations and even thought twice about trips to the nearest regional centre for the day. Parts of our region were off-limits in any case, with many people from nearby towns evacuated.
In almost every state, there were communities like mine experiencing climate change impact predictions come horribly, catastrophically true.
According to health experts and climate change experts, this summer is the wakeup call.
Unfortunately there has been very little research into the health impacts of prolonged exposure to bushfire smoke, University of Tasmania associate professor Dr Fay Johnston, who leads environmental health research at the Menzies Institute for Medical Research in Tasmania, told The Fifth Estate.
The vast majority of research has been on short, episodic exposure. The scale of this summer’s severe and prolonged events, with smoke affecting every major capital city and large numbers of regional communities for days at a time, if not weeks, has not been encountered.
Tracking people affected by the long-lasting smoke from the Hazelwood fire in the Latrobe Valley is currently the only significant Australian study. Johnston says a five-year study found that there were subtle but measurable impacts on the lung development of young people in the area, and overall more lung-related symptoms reported in the population.
The researchers are continuing to track health in the area for the next few years.
The harsh reality is climate change means this is unlikely to be a once-off.
It’s even been hard to find out just how dangerous the air is. Johnston says information is inconsistent across state public health and environmental protection agencies.
There is an app available, developed and launched by researchers from the Menzies Institute, CSIRO, UTAS, EPA Tasmania and ANU, called Air Rater, which gives information on air quality for any location. The site also has resources on how to manage the smoke situation.
Johnston says the evidence base is “not great” for the measures frequently cited in the media such as wearing P2 masks and staying inside.
The effectiveness of the masks is questionable and staying inside can have mental and physical health impacts, as can avoiding exercise, another popular recommendation.
Exercise can offset some of the effects of smoke exposure, she says.
Spending time in modern buildings that have HEPA (high-efficiency particulate air) filters works, however, going to the movies or hanging out in shopping centres is not a solution when smoke lasts for days.
We just don’t have “really robust” solutions yet.
Along with an increase in ambulance call-outs for respiratory impacts, Johnston says there has been a spike in callouts for diabetes-related health issues and also low blood sugar issues. The Hazelwood study also found increased gestational diabetes rates for pregnant women exposed to the smoke.
However, how smoke exposure affects blood sugar is not well understood, she says.
How do we make our homes safe?
Australia’s leaky homes are also failing to keep us safe when we heed advice and stay inside. But there are easy and affordable ways this can be fixed, according to air tightness expert and ESD consultant at SUHO, Jessica Allen.
One important measure is to fit dampers to kitchen and bathroom exhaust fans.
Many doors have gaps of up to half an inch between the door and the frame – a $5 foam seal from Bunnings can be used to fix that, Allen says.
Windows and architraves can also leak air, so tape or silicone can be used to seal the gaps.
Low-level leaks, such as cracks in floorboards, are not so important, as smoke tends to rise.
“A lot of people are feeling very helpless,” Allen says.
“An air tightness strategy is not rocket science, people just need to know the right questions to ask and the right people to ask.”
Maybe blower door testing should be part of the bushfire building standard
Ensuring a building is well-sealed is already part of the bushfire building standard, AS 3959. She says blower door testing should probably be incorporated into the standard, as currently it’s predictive, and there are no checks or oversight.
The issues of smoke and fire put a new angle on blower door testing generally, she says.
While it’s possible to undertake some building sealing without getting a test done, the test will provide additional insights and advice on leak points. And a better sealed home will also have lower running costs for heating and cooling.
Tests cost between $600 and $800, Allen says, depending on the complexity. You can find an accredited blower door tester via the Air Infiltration and Ventilation Association of Australia website.
Passive House is great for smoke but not the only option
She says she has been seeing a lot of emphasis on Passive House in relation to smoke safety, but stresses going full Passive House standard is not necessary to achieve a smoke-safe home.
While Passive House does work, it is “very complex” to implement as a retrofit.
“It is not the only solution.”
Allen says there probably needs to be some “regulatory direction” for widescale implementation, particularly for rental homes.
The upside is there is “massive potential” for jobs in making our homes safe from smoke ingress. The actual work of sealing is not highly skilled, Allen says, and the additional training such as confined space or working at heights tickets that may be required would be an asset for job seekers.
“This is the first time en masse we are taking smoke and bushfires seriously.”
Dr Joe McGirr, state member for Wagga Wagga, was previously an emergency physician and has researched climate change impacts on rural and regional health. Action on climate change was part of his election pitch.
The electorate includes fire-ravaged communities such as Batlow and Adelong.
The biggest issue is the medium to long term impact, because pine plantations, orchards and farms have all been affected. McGirr told The Fifth Estate that after the immediate trauma many have experienced, there is a longer term mental health issue due to the economic impact of local industries needing years to recover.
The plantations will take 30 years, the orchards up to a decade.
The fires come too on top of the prolonged drought and extreme heat, which have also impacted community health and mental wellbeing.
On the day the fires hit Batlow, Wagga had temperatures that reached 48 degrees.
“I don’t think people expected Batlow to be overcome,” he says.
The town is 700m above sea level, averages 1300mm of rain annually and is in a cool climate zone that gets snow in winter.
McGirr says Wagga was well-prepared for the asthma impacts, as the town has long been a hotspot for the condition. Medical services and the population “know what to do.”
“The challenge we now face is the long-term emotional wellbeing issues.”
Masks and filters – what to look for
The National Asthma Council’s Sensitive Choice program has an information hub for people with asthma and allergies, including factsheets about air treatments and managing asthma during bushfire season.
Program manager Adele Taylor says the two most important features to look for when buying an air purifier are:
- HEPA 13 filter (or equivalent) that will remove at least 99.97 per cent of air borne particles down to PM2.5 in size, and an
- Activated carbon (or charcoal) filter to help filter out gases and smoke from the air.
“Additionally, if you have pets at home you may want to consider a purifier that has a pet filter and large pre-filter included,” she says.
“There are many other additional filters available in purifiers, so it is very important to understand what your individual triggers are, to make sure you are buying a machine that will help to reduce those triggers within your home.”
- Read the Asthma Council air purifier factsheet
The smoke situation may also trigger asthma in people not previously diagnosed.
“There may be people who don’t realise they have asthma that are experiencing symptoms triggered by the smoke and poor air quality, Siobhan Brophy, National Asthma Council Australia chief executive, says.
“It’s crucial for those people to speak with a doctor to find out if asthma is causing these symptoms, so they can start treating and managing the condition.”