Professor Sotiris Vardoulakis, an air quality and health expert from the Australian National University’s Research School of Population Health, has developed freely accessible fact sheets on how to best protect yourself from bushfire smoke. The fact sheets were developed because Professor Vardoulakis believed people needed more comprehensive and balanced health protection advice, as Australians deal with unprecedented levels of bushfire smoke.
“The existing public health advice on bushfire smoke is mainly tailored to brief air pollution episodes, typically lasting no longer than one or two days. But this is not normal, and we need to urgently do more. People need to be able to access the best information out there simply and quickly,” Vardoulakis said.
Over the course of the current bushfire season, urban centres have been exposed to high levels of smoke, requiring a rapid and well-targeted health protection response. The fact sheets provide the advice and practical tips needed by people exposed to bushfire smoke to lead their daily lives. The information is designed to help people make informed decisions about dealing with bushfire smoke and to navigate the overwhelming amount of information from health professionals, media and the public.
“These fact sheets will clear a path for communities and people asking how they can plan daily life for the remainder of this unprecedented season and future summers. They aim to provide evidence-based advice on the most practical and effective ways for protecting our health, as well as resources for further information and public health action,” Vardoulakis said.
Bushfires and smoke have caused stress and anxiety for many communities and groups, particularly parents with young children, pregnant women, the elderly and those with existing lung disease, heart disease or other chronic illnesses. The fact sheets address topics such as being active, face masks, mental health and medication plans and the information is contained in three documents: ‘What is bushfire smoke and how harmful is it?’, ‘How to protect yourself and others from bushfire smoke’ and ‘How to monitor local conditions’.
Government issues P2 masks to protect frontline workers
The release of these fact sheets follow an announcement by the Australian Government Department of Health that an additional 576,000 P2 masks will be provided to South Australia, Tasmania and Australian Defence Force personnel to support bushfire-affected communities. An additional 505,000 masks have been reserved for NSW and 505,600 for Victoria. The Australian Government has provided a total of 3.5 million P2 masks over the course of the current bushfire season. Available supplies of P2 masks should be allocated to those with existing heart or lung conditions, including angina, ischaemic heart disease, asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (bronchitis and emphysema). People with heart or lung conditions, aged over 65 or under 14, pregnant women and people with diabetes are at greater risk of experiencing health effects. Exposure to smoke could cause people with pre-existing conditions to experience worsening symptoms; they are urged to follow treatment plans and keep reliever medication close at hand.
“The government is providing 505,600 masks to Defence Force personnel so they can carry out their important work safely. In addition, 64,000 masks are being provided to South Australia and 6400 masks are being provided to Tasmania, following requests from these states. The government has also begun replenishing the national stockpile of P2 masks,” said Greg Hunt, Minister for Health. People experiencing symptoms should speak to their doctor. Exposure can be minimised by reducing physical exercise outdoors and by ventilating homes during periods of better outdoor air quality to avoid build-up of indoor pollution.
“It is important to note that wearing masks is not an alternative to avoiding smoke,” Acting Chief Medical Officer Professor Paul Kelly said. “The best thing people in smoke-affected communities can do is stay inside with doors and windows closed if at all possible. Bushfire smoke contains fine particulate matter known as PM2.5, which can cause health effects. Exposure to air pollution over days or weeks increases the risk of illness. Evidence shows the risk of illness declines when air pollution levels fall, even after very long periods of exposure.”
To better understand the health impacts of smoke exposure, the Environmental Health Standing Committee, a subcommittee of the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee, will conduct an analysis of the available science to find what links exist between health effects and prolonged smoke exposure. People in areas affected by bushfire smoke are advised to monitor air quality conditions and take all reasonable precautions.
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