Health impacts of bushfire smoke
Bushfire smoke: what are the health impacts and what can we do to minimise exposure?
Air pollution from bushfires or landscape fires affects the health and well-being of thousands of Australians. In this factsheet we outline how bushfire smoke affects health and what you can do to protect yourself when bushfire smoke is around.
The health effects of bushfire smoke are largely caused by suspended fine particulate matter (PM2.5). PM2.5 affects most organ systems, including the lung, heart, brain, and immune systems and changes some metabolic functions.
Anyone can be affected by bushfire smoke, but some people are more at-risk than others. At-risk groups are: those living with asthma or lung disease, those with diabetes, heart or blood vessel diseases, pregnant women, young children, and older adults. These groups should take special precautions in the event of bushfire smoke.
We are not entirely clear about the health effect of smoke from fires that last for a long time (weeks versus days). Findings from the Hazelwood Health Study suggest some health impacts from smoke episodes lasting weeks can continue for years after the original smoke event.
There are various steps that you can take to reduce your exposure to bushfire smoke. These include staying indoors, seeking environments with clean air, staying informed about your local air quality and using indoor HEPA air cleaners. Most paper and cloth face masks will not protect you from bushfire smoke. However, specialised N95 or P2 masks will reduce the amount of smoke particles you breathe if fitted properly and changed regularly.
When air quality outside is poor, use an air cleaner with a HEPA filter while keeping doors and windows closed. This will simultaneously help to keep you safe from the health impacts of smoke and reduce the likelihood of viruses like COVID-19 being transmitted between people. The best way to protect yourself from COVID-19 indoors remains getting vaccinated and keeping up your booster routine.
To collectively protect ourselves from bushfire smoke, we must first tackle climate change as it is increasing the frequency and intensity of bushfires.