Why experts say we will need to live with smoke-filled air

Font Size:

Gabriel da Silva, University of Melbourne

As fires ravaged large sections of the Australian bush last summer, cities and towns all along the coast were blanketed in toxic smoke. Air pollutants were measured at unheard of levels across the country.

Hazardous air descended on cities hundreds of kilometres away from the fires themselves. This air was the most dangerous to breathe on the planet.

The bushfire royal commission was tabled on October 30, with some sobering findings about fires and air pollution. Unfortunately, it showed that as a nation we were not prepared to deal with this public health emergency.

These disasters are inevitable under climate change and, while we need to urgently act on climate change to protect future generations, we also need to make changes now to mitigate the risks that already face us.

Australia must get better at communicating how to identify and then stay safe in hazardous air. A national set of air quality categories would go a long way to achieving this.

Over 400 deaths attributed to bushfire smoke
The royal commission heard that air pollution from the summer fires likely caused more than 400 deaths. Thousands of additional hospital admissions put added strain on our hospitals. All up the added burden to our health system was estimated at almost $2 billion.

Even in the absence of extreme natural disasters, air pollution is one of Australia’s biggest public health concerns. Pollution from all sources causes thousands of deaths per year. This includes emissions from coal-fired power stations, diesel cars and wood-fired heaters.

Better preparing ourselves to deal with bushfire smoke will have flow-on benefits in tackling these problems.

Different state, different health advice
The royal commission found “there is an urgent need for national consistency in the categorisation of air quality”. At the moment, every state has their own system to categorise air quality and communicate it to the public.

But there are major discrepancies with how different states identify the worst air quality.

Air quality is the sum impact of the concentration of various unhealthy chemicals in the air. These include ozone, nitrogen and sulphur oxides, and fine particulate matter. To communicate this to the public, most countries convert these chemical concentrations into an Air Quality Index (AQI).

In the US, there is a standardised AQI categorisation for the whole country.

In Australia, the situation is very different. Every state has its own bands, with their own colour codes. These bands trigger at different pollutant levels and carry different health advice. The royal commission told us this needs to be standardised, and now.

For example, in NSW the worst air quality category is ‘Hazardous’, which triggers at an AQI of 200. South Australia, however, only recognises ‘Very Poor’ as the worst class of air quality, with an AQI of 150 and above.

During the summer bushfires, AQI values as high as 5000 were measured. It’s clear the highest bands of air pollution are no longer appropriate.

We need a national air quality system
We have faced a similar problem before. After Victoria’s Black Saturday fires in 2009, we recognised that our fire danger ratings were inadequate.

The Black Saturday royal commission found we needed a higher category for the most dangerous fire conditions. The ‘Catastrophic’ category (‘CODE RED’ in Victoria) was added. It carried clear advice about what to do in such dangerous conditions, instructing people to safely leave as early as possible.

Fire danger rating sign in front of a grass fire The ‘CODE RED’ or ‘Catastrophic’ fire danger rating was added after the Black Saturday fires. Shutterstock

Something similar now needs to happen with air quality ratings.

When facing future extreme bushfires, we need a way to identify when catastrophic conditions have led to air so unhealthy that everyone should take precautions, such as staying indoors and wearing masks. We then need to get clear health advice out to the public.

A national air quality rating system could achieve this, and would also help address other important recommendations of the royal commission: That we need improved means of getting reliable information out to the public, along with better community education around what to do when air quality plummets.

There’s work to do
An Australian AQI should be featured on national weather reports and forecasts, providing important health information to the public every day of the year. At the same time it would familiarise Australians with air quality measures and actions that need to be taken to protect ourselves from unhealthy air.

But there is work to do. First, we need to develop a new set of air quality categories that work for the entire country, and reflects both the everyday hazards of industrial pollution and the extreme dangers of bushfires. These categories also need to be matched with sound health advice.

And if we are going to report these measures more widely, then we also need to get better at measuring and predicting air quality across the nation – two other important royal commission recommendations.

Achieving all of this won’t be easy. But if we can get it right, then we will be much better placed to deal with smoke risk the next time severe bushfires inevitably happen.The Conversation

Gabriel da Silva, Senior Lecturer in Chemical Engineering, University of Melbourne

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons licence. Read the original article.

Are you worried about having to adapt to smoke-filled air in future?

If you enjoy our content, don’t keep it to yourself. Share our free eNews with your friends and encourage them to sign up.

Join YourLifeChoices today
and get this free eBook!

Join
By joining YourLifeChoices you consent that you have read and agree to our Terms & Conditions and Privacy Policy

RELATED LINKS

Report tells why ageing populations are an asset

Experts say health means wealth for older people and global economies.

Mould and damp health costs and hazards

Mould is making 2.5 million Aussies more susceptible to coronavirus.

Emerging treatment helps reverse heart failure in some patients

Transplants and long-term use of artificial heart pumps may become a thing of the past.

Written by The Conversation

6 Comments

Total Comments: 6
  1. 0
    0

    “These disasters are inevitable under climate change and, while we need to urgently act on climate change to protect future generations, we also need to make changes now to mitigate the risks that already face us.”

    This is a statement that cannot be proven with any facts that stand up under basic scrutiny. Yes, there is certainly climate change and the climate has been changing since before man walked the Earth. Geologists have proved that the climate has changed and the changes are cyclical from studies of rock formations and we need to live with the changes as nothing that humans can do to change the current cycle. The changes are gradual and because of that all living things will adapt. What has caused the current hysteria is mainly politicians who have seen a way to attract voters and are getting on the bandwagon as well as people like Gore who are making millions being paid to fly around the world with false information. The 16yo autistic schoolgirl who has virtually no life experience is viewed almost as a saint when she parrots what she has read or been told about the world ending by 2030 unless we “do something”.

    • 0
      0

      And Horace, what are your scientific qualifications that enable you to gainsay Gabriel da Silva and the overwhelming majority of climate scientists? Just today the AMA supported by Doctors for the Environment has strongly reiterated that climate change poses a health emergency requiring urgent action. Australia has done exceptionally well by following the science in the pandemic. It’s time to follow the science about climate change if our kids and grandkids are to have a liveable planet.

    • 0
      0

      Well said Horace.

      They Know How to Prevent Megafires. Why Won’t Anybody Listen?
      The situation in California is just like the one in Australia

      So, what’s it like? “It’s just … well … it’s horrible. Horrible to see this happening when the science is so clear and has been clear for years. Ingalsbee said. “Every year I warn people: Disaster’s coming. We got to change. And no one listens. And then it happens.”
      The pattern is a form of insanity: We keep doing overzealous fire suppression across California landscapes where the fire poses little risk to people and structures. As a result, wildland fuels keep building up.
      There’s only one solution, the one we know yet still avoid. “We need to get good fire on the ground and whittle down some of that fuel load.”

      Modern Californians are burning 0.1% of what indigenous California’s used to do:
      Academics believe that between 4.4 million and 11.8 million acres burned each year in prehistoric California. Between 1982 and 1998, California’s agency land managers burned, on average, about 30,000 acres a year. Between 1999 and 2017, that number dropped to an annual 13,000 acres. The state passed a few new laws in 2018 designed to facilitate more intentional burning. But few are optimistic this, alone, will lead to significant change. We live with a deathly backlog. In February 2020, Nature Sustainability published this terrifying conclusion: California would need to burn 20 million acres — an area about the size of Maine — to restabilize in terms of fire.

      A lot of the money though, goes on late afternoon planes dumping fire retardant to save a few wild trees:
      The airdrop serves, at great expense, to save trees in the wilderness, where burning, not suppression, might well do better.
      The Greens use the flaming wrecks as advertising for climate change and fundraising for their party or club.
      Then there’s the swamp — the cumbersome octopus of bureaucracy often shuts down the few prescribed burns people are ready to do.
      Sounds a lot like Australia.
      https://www.propublica.org/article/they-know-how-to-prevent-megafires-why-wont-anybody-listen

  2. 0
    0

    Totally agree Horace.

  3. 0
    0

    If you truly believe in human induced climate change then I suggest to start directing your protestations to China and India among other nations. But certainly you don’t need to worry about Australia’s emissions because they are infinitesimal compared to these other nations.

  4. 0
    0

    “experts say we will need to live with smoke-filled air”

    Of course, if we continue to ignore expert advice on forest management & concentrate on EXPENSIVE FIRE FIGHTING (e.g. water bombers) rather than prevention, we will have to get used to the smoke.

    Bushfire Experts (NOT CONSULTED) Respond To The Australian Bushfire Commission’s Overt Genuflection to Climate Disaster Memes
    A group of land management experts has not wasted any time criticising the Bushfire Royal Commission. I think it’s fair to say they haven’t pulled any punches.
    BUSHFIRES ROYAL COMMISSION DOESN’T HAVE THE ANSWERS. THEY SHOULD LOOK TO WESTERN AUSTRALI’S SUCCESS IN MANAGING FIRES
    Experienced land and fire managers from eight community groups across Australia have jointly written to the Prime Minister urging the restoration of healthy and safe rural landscapes. The grass-roots organisations represent more than 6,000 members and 14 regional councils. They have called for an end to the ongoing loss of human life and the socioeconomic and environmental destruction caused by extreme bushfires.

    Former Chief of CSIRO Bushfire Research, Phil Cheney, says that a focus on emergency response at the expense of land management has created an unstoppable monster. Expenditure on firefighting forces is ever-increasing whilst volunteers are being cynically used to deflect criticism away from failed government policies. Land management agencies no longer have primary responsibility for suppressing wildfires. Consequently, they have little incentive for stewardship and fire mitigation. Cheney is a scientific advisor to Volunteer Fire Fighters Association.

    Chairman of Western Australia’s Bushfire Front, Roger Underwood, points to the stark contrast in historical fire management policies and outcomes on either side of the continent. Seventy years of data from WA show a strong inverse relationship between the area maintained by mild burning and the area subsequently damaged by high intensity fires. This relationship is especially apparent in extreme fire seasons.

    Underwood is widely experienced in sustainable land and fire management at all levels from lighting or fighting fires on the ground, to leading a State land management agency. He highlights the deep divide between those who actively care for the bush and who understand bushfire science and operations, compared to the Academics and Fire Chiefs who are misleading governments. The Royal Commission did not call upon Mr. Cheney, Mr. Underwood or similar elders to give evidence. Their consideration of previous bushfire inquiries went back only as far as the COAG whitewash in 2004.

    The Royal Commission has accepted wrong advice from academics and modellers rather than information from experienced practitioners. Consequently its conclusions on Effectiveness of Fuel Management are substantially incorrect.

    Our land was successfully managed for tens of thousands of years, through some extreme climate changes, by people with long experience, but only the most basic technology. It is shocking to see how this has been replaced by reliance on computer modelling and hugely expensive but futile paramilitary response capacity. The inevitable carnage will continue in the wake of this Royal Commission unless active landscape management based on pragmatic science is reinstated.

    18 Royal Commissions on bushfire since 1939, all stating the obvious (inadequate management, inadequate fuel load reduction etc.) Now this one, swamped by – LeftieWarmunists! Why hold Royal Commissions at all if they are useless hand-waving without consequence?

    https://wattsupwiththat.com/2020/10/30/response-to-the-australian-bushfire-commission/


FACEBOOK COMMENTS



SPONSORED LINKS

continue reading

Entertainment

Friday Funnies: Short jokes for the shortest month

February flies by too fast, just like these short but sharp jokes. What is the recipe for Honeymoon Salad?Lettuce alone...

Food

Succulent Spice-Roasted Salmon

These little salmon bites are something I've made time and time again over the years and this method of roasting...

Photos

How to take great pictures of gardens

If you've never been too good at taking pictures of your beautiful blooms, now's the time to brush up on...

Aged Care

Paid on par with cleaners: the broader issue affecting aged care

Paid on par with cleaners: the broader issue affecting the quality of aged care Ben Farr-Wharton, Edith Cowan University; Matthew...

Food

Researchers fear diet produces ‘untoward effects on the heart’

The keto diet, lauded for its purported fat-burning capabilities, could be bad for your heart, according to new research. The...

COVID-19

Vaccine overdose cases raise questions over doctor training

Australia's vaccine rollout suffered a major hiccup, with health minister Greg Hunt revealing on Wednesday that two elderly residents at...

Retirement Income

Why middle-income Australians are the big losers in retirement

Australia's middle-income earners are losing out when it comes to retirement income. That's the view of Mercer's senior partner, David...

Food

Nine food and heart health myths busted

Should you cook with butter or olive oil? Is that drink of red wine protecting your heart? Pink Himalayan salt is healthy, right? There...

LOADING MORE ARTICLE...