Real-time air quality reports key to maintaining health

A group of Australia’s top environmental health experts say the entire country should provide real-time air quality reporting, in the wake of summer’s unprecedented bushfire season.

In a paper published in the Medical Journal of Australia today, the researchers say public access to user-friendly air quality information is essential for managing personal exposure to smoke.

Over December and last month, large parts of the country were covered in bushfire smoke, leading to numerous warnings from health authorities about hazardous air quality levels.

Those warnings related to tiny particles known as PM2.5, which, when inhaled, can penetrate deep into the lungs and can even enter the bloodstream. The particles can cause an immune response and inflammation, which can have severe effects on people with conditions including asthma.

One of the authors, Associate Professor Fay Johnston, says air quality monitoring systems are good, but they are not developed to monitor bushfire smoke events.

“We’ve now got high pollution going on for long periods, and that’s probably the most worrying thing of all,” she said.

According to national standards, air quality was considered hazardous when the 24-hour rolling average for PM2.5 reached 200 or more.

The head of the Environmental Health group at the Menzies Institute for Medical Research at the University of Tasmania said research shows the health impacts of smoke are felt immediately, particularly for people with pre-existing conditions including asthma and lung disease, so having real-time data was important.

“The crucial thing about that is there’s no safe lower limit,” Associate Professor Johnston said.

“When something is described as hazardous, it doesn’t mean it suddenly got bad at that point. It’s actually hazardous right from the minute it starts rising.

“To protect health, it’s more logical to give people real-time information.”

Associate Professor Johnston public health advice to stay indoors with windows shut, to use re-circulated air, avoid exercise outdoors in hazardous air and make sure you have a supply of important medications was less effective when the smoke event went for weeks on end.

Professor Clare Murphy from the School of Earth, Atmospheric and Life Sciences at the University of Wollongong said we were in “new territory” and NSW’s Department of Planning and Industry and Environment was working on presenting its air quality data in a more user-friendly way.

“These fires have shown us things have changed, and hindsight showed this would be useful,” Professor Murphy said.