I live in Australia’s capital, Canberra, which is almost always characterised by crisp blue skies and good air quality. However, not surprisingly, for most of the last 6-8 weeks the skies in Canberra have been far from clear and crisp as a result of the bushfires burning across NSW, Victoria and now the southern edge of the ACT. My heart goes out to those who have been or are still being directly affected by the fires.
One of the secondary effects of the fires, that we have been struggling with personally, is smoke. We had days in early January 2020 where our air quality here in Canberra was rated as not only ‘Hazardous’, but the worst of any city in the world. I have been very conscious of the potential impacts particularly for my children and have had countless conversations with other parents who are also not only concerned, but also really unsure of what adjustments to make for themselves and their families. Thankfully there are a number of respected doctors, paediatricians and psychologists who have been speaking into this space, giving advice not only on how to reduce the potential physical effects of bushfire smoke, but also how to manage some of the emotional effects of the fires. I have pulled together the most useful information I have come across over the last few weeks, in one place, in the hope that it might be helpful to others, in particular families, as well.
Physical Health – Air quality – the Sciency bit
In terms of air pollution the primary thing of significance is the type and concentration of what is referred to as Particulate matter (PM). PM refers to all of the solid and liquid particles that are suspended in the air. There are two standard measurements of PM: namely PM10 and PM2.5. PM10 are particles present in the air with a diameter of 10 micro-metres or less, whereas PM2.5 are particles present in the air with a diameter of 2.5 micro-metres or less. Bushfire smoke contains both PM10 and PM2.5 and both have potential health effects as they are both small enough to pass through the throat and nose and enter the lungs and the bloodstream (NSW Health, n.d.). However it is the PM2.5 particles that scientists and doctors seem the most concerned about when it comes to bushfire smoke.
So what is the issue with PM2.5 particles?
When inhaled, these particles can penetrate deep into our lungs causing respiratory issues (NSW Health, n.d.). A lesser known issue, noted by the chief medical adviser of the Heart Foundation, cardiologist Professor Garry Jennings is as follows: “…if smoke particles cross from the lungs into the bloodstream, it can contribute to inflammation and narrowing of blood vessels, as well as increasing the chance of blood clots in vulnerable people. This can worsen pre-existing conditions like heart failure and high blood pressure and can trigger events such as heart attacks.” (Wood, 2020). Exposure to PM2.5 particles has even been linked to things like depression and cancer.
Most Government health websites have information on the potential effects of exposure to pollutants like bushfire smoke over the short and long term. The following information is taken from the NSW Health website. NSW Health indicates that there are differing effects from short-term and long-term exposure to Particulate Matter (PM), which includes both PM10 and PM2.5 particles in bushfire smoke. In summary, short-term exposure appears to exacerbate pre-existing diseases while long-term exposure most likely causes disease and increases the rate of progression of those diseases (NSW Health, n.d.).
“Short-term exposure (hours to days) can lead to:
- Irritated eyes, nose and throat;
- Worsening asthma and lung diseases such as chronic bronchitis (also called chronic obstructive pulmonary disease or COPD);
- Heart attacks and arrhythmias (irregular heart beat) in people with heart disease; and
- Increases in hospital admissions and premature death due to diseases of the respiratory and cardiovascular systems.
Long-term exposure (many years) can lead to:
- Reduced lung function;
- Development of cardiovascular and respiratory diseases;
- Increased rate of disease progression;
- Reduction in life expectancy” ((NSW Health, n.d.)
Tamburlini et al., 2002 make this important observation about children. “When studying the health effects of a particular hazard, children are often considered as if they were small adults, however, children represent the largest sub-population susceptible to the adverse health effects of air pollution. For example, during the first few months after birth, an infant’s metabolic pathways are still developing and due to the biochemical immaturity, an infant cannot detoxify and excrete toxins as well as adults (Tamburlini et al., 2002).” Similar concerns are raised in the literature for a babies development in the womb (eg. Klepac, 2018). These findings are worth bearing in mind when you are making decisions for yourself or your family in terms of when and how to reduce exposure.
Things you can do to protect and support yourself and your loved ones:
- Find a source for real-time air quality readings and follow guidance on what to do at differing levels
When it comes to air quality data – what you really want is data that is as close as possible to real-time in order to make appropriate adjustments to any planned activities.
In Canberra the best source of real time data is on CanberraAir.com which was developed by a local Canberran who was keen to get more timely air quality data than that available on other sites like ACT Health. My understanding is that the air quality data on the ACT Health website is averaged over 24 hours for particulates – and although this gives a general indication of the air quality it does necessarily help you to make real-time decisions and therefore adjustments to any planned activities. If you want some additional information on how the real time data is collected jump on over here to the CanberraAir.com website.
What if I can’t smell smoke or the air looks clear, does that mean its safe? This has been one of the biggest areas of confusion for people I have been talking to, including those who are having to make important decisions for their staff or children. CanberraAir.com says “Not necessarily. PM2.5 particles are so small that they are difficult to smell, or see in the air.” That is why it is so important to check the actual readings at least daily.
The other primary source of air quality information you are likely to come across is the Air Quality Index (AQI). This can be easily accessed via the Air Quality Index (AQI) website. To get the AQI for a locality, the measured PM values are converted using the US EPA AQI standard. The great thing about the AQI based sites is that they give basic recommendations on what adjustments (health advice) you should consider for each AQI level (See Table below).
How do the AQI readings relate to the real time readings provided on CaberraAir.com?
In the ACT, AQI for PM2.5 is calculated by multiplying the actual particle readings by 4. So a 50 ug/m3 particle concentration would yield an AQI of 200 (Hazardous). CanberraAir.com provides both the current reading and the AQI. Once you have the AQI go to the table above to check “What you should do?”.
You can set your hometown as the default Air Quality Index (AQI) website so that when you open the website it goes straight to your local readings which is really helpful. This link takes you directly to the AQI data for Canberra.
In other states, some EPA websites allow you can access the hourly air concentration data. For example, you will find hourly Air Concentration Data for a number of key sites across NSW here. An air quality forecast for the same locations is also published at 4pm daily on the Environment, Energy and Science website.
You can access Air Quality readings for other states as follows:
So in summary, find a source for real-time air quality readings and follow the specific AQI recommendations for each level provided. It goes without saying that you absolutely follow your doctors advice above and beyond any of these recommendations.
Improving air quality inside the house
2. Keep you house closed up even on days that appear clearer. This is a pretty obvious one but incredibly important – keep your house closed up until the real time and AQI readings are back in the ‘Good’ range. Look at sealing off obvious drafts particularly around windows and doors. Chat to your local hardware store about options for sealing the specific areas of concern in your house. For anyone fortunate enough to be living in a german style passiv-haus you will already have this well and truly covered.
3. Use an Air filter/purifier.
In order to be truly effective in clearing smoke it needs need to have a true HEPA filter. These are sometimes rated as E11, E12, E13, H11, H12, H13+.
3. Keep your air-conditioner on.
Whilst not designed to truly filter smoke Chris Barnes, CHOICE’s household heating and cooling expert, suggests that it “may still help to make the air better than it would otherwise be” (Rafferty, 2020). Evaporative coolers, which are common in the ACT require doors of windows to be open and are therefore not recommended.
4. Regular cleaning and vacuuming.
On days when the smoke outside has been at its worst we have been able to visibly see smoke in the house. Over time as this settles, you will see a fine dust on furniture and carpets etc…. This is nt so much a problem for us at the moment, but in early January, when the air quality was hazardous, I made an effort to wipe down the main household surfaces daily using a microfibre cloth such a Norwex and vacuuming. Please note a vacuum with a HEPA Filter is most effective.
Protecting yourself outside the house
5. Wear a P2/N95 rated face mask. Please check when you purchase what the ‘life’ of the mask is as many are only designed to work for around 8 hours of use. Store in a sealed plastic bag when not in use, to prolong the life of the mask. There are various sizes available so make sure you get the smallest size for children as the larger masks will not seal properly across the face. NSW Health notes that these masks are not effective on beards as they cannot seal. Some great advice and graphics on fitting a mask can be found here.
6. Rinsing your sinuses. If you are exposed to external smoke when you know it is at an “unhealthy’ level or worse and you do not have access to a P2 mask, consider rinsing your sinuses with a Neti Pot once you return inside. This won’t prevent all the potential impacts of exposure, but may help to reduce sinus, eye and throat irritation.
Support you respiratory & immune health and your body’s natural detoxification systems.
Most of these strategies come from holistic paediatrician Dr Elisa Song who is based in California, USA. Dr Song is also an Ambassador for Mindd Foundation who I have been fortunate to do some of my training with over the last 5 years. Dr Song put this list together in response to another difficult bushfire season last year (2019) in California. These are strategies that Dr Song recommends are worth considering “…for as long as the fires are ongoing and Air Quality Index remains anything but ‘Good’”.
6. Detox baths – such as Epsom salts and/or magnesium chloride.
These help to support detoxification and enhance magnesium and glutathione (the bodies master anti-oxidant) levels (Song, 2019). We have been doing these every other day at the moment and have done so to support our health for many years. You can find small packets of Epson salts or magnesium chloride in supermarkets, health stores and chemists. I get mine in bulk from either Blants or Honest to Goodness.
7. “Liposomal glutathione.
Glutathione can “..support respiratory and immune health and aid in detoxification” (Song, 2019). This is something it would be best to source through your doctor. Many families who are already working with a holistic/functional/biomedical GP or paediatrician may already have some on hand. If you are interested in finding a practitioner who is trained in Integrative Healthcare and Functional Medicine mindd.org has a great directory.
8. Supplement with magnesium.
Dr Song recommends this in particular for those “…with asthma to support lung health and reduce bronchial spasm and wheezing” (Song, 2019). Again this is something it would be best to talk through with your doctor. We don’t have any pre-existing respiratory issues on our family, but my husband and I regularly take Magnesium glycinate to support our health. Health food stores stock magnesium and can usually guide you toward a good brand.
9. Diffuse essential oils.
I woke one morning at my Father-in laws place with a big headache that I was certain was with the dense smoke that had been blown into the area overnight. On that particular morning when we woke we could actually see smoke inside the house as well. My father-in-law was the one who suggested popping on the diffuser. Within half an hour, my headache was gone. We used one of our favourite blends – Doterra’s Easy Air. Dr Song indicates that “Lavender is particularly useful in reducing inflammation and may calm inflammation in the airways”.
The following additional recommendations from Dr Song are all things that are fantastic for our health everyday, but even more so when we are trying to detoxify toxic bushfire smoke :
10. EAT A RAINBOW of fruits and vegetables.
Dr Song says that these “..contain phytonutrients which help reduce inflammation and oxidative stress, and support detoxification” (Song, 2019). In addition wherever possible minimise processed foods including additives and preservatives as they put additional pressure on our digestive and detoxification systems. These are all things we teach children in the work I do with The Root Cause in The Mad Food Science Program!
11. Reduce sugar consumption.
What on earth does sugar have to do with smoke I hear you asking? Dr Song says that excessive sugar “…puts a load on our kids’ livers that can interfere with proper detoxification …..”. So reducing sugar makes it much easier for our bodies and those of our children to get on with the business of detoxification.
12. Increase your intake of probiotics or probiotic foods .
Examples include non-sweetened yoghurts, kefir, kombucha, sauerkraut. Dr Song says that these are essential for optimal gut health and in turn “..are key to supporting detox and immune health” (Song, 2019).
13. Maintain regular exercise as much as possible.
Regular exercise and sweat are an essential part of detoxification in the human body (Song, 2019). Obviously this needs to be done inside when air quality is poor or worse, in an environment with as good an air quality as possible, until external air quality ratings return to ‘Good’.
14. Keep hydrated.
Dr Song says that “…we get rid of most of our toxins by pee, poop, and sweat!” So maintaining hydration helps us these important detoxification systems moving efficiently. This is particularly important for children and babies on days when poor air pollution is teamed with high temperatures.
15. Consider using a natural anti-histamine like Quercetin.
Over the last few weeks when I have noticed sinus or throat irritation from the smoke, I have found it really helpful to take a Herbs of Gold Quercetin Complex which contains quercetin, which has known antihistamine properties and vitamin C which is known to help maintain immune system function and support blood vessel health (Chambial, et.al., 2013).
Mental, Emotional & Spiritual Health
16. Draw on others who are known professionals in kiddies mental and emotional health.
Two absolute go-to’s in terms of guidance on my kiddies mental and emotional health are Maggie Dent and Karen Young. As usual they have both weighed in with great input on how to support our children through the bushfires. Its worth following both of these woman on social media as they always have incredible insights to share.
Maggie Dent, who needs no introduction here in Australia – has a great video on how you can help kids feel safe during the bushfires. You can find it HERE.
Karen Young, is a child psychologist and the author of my hands down favourite book – of all time – on anxiety for children, called Hey Warrior. You can find one of her many helpful posts HERE.
Personally, we have been very intentional about what our children see and hear when it comes to reporting on the fires and even careful about what we discuss regarding the fires with others when the children are around. We have talked to our children about what has been happening over the last few months, adjusting what we share to be age-appropriate for each of our children. They know that people have lost their lives and many people their homes and businesses. However, we have been mindful not to bombard them with news reports or graphic images. I have also been trying to make sure I am really present for my kids throughout this time – so that if and when any issues or any anxieties arise we have time to unpack them and talk them through.
Beyond Blue have written a great article about common reactions to traumatic situations like bushfires (either first or second hand exposure) and how you can identify what are common reactions, what go beyond common reactions, dealing with the emotional impact of a bushfire and where to seek support. You can find the article here. I really encourage anyone who struggles with their mental health to be very selective about what you consume in terms of the bushfire coverage and look out for an exacerbation of any concerning thoughts, emotions or behaviours . Seek out additional support if you need it. Beyond Blue provide links for support in their article. I encourage everyone else to check in with those you know may be vulnerable to struggling in this way – seek them out and ask them if they are ok.
Some other things we have been doing as a family that have been really helpful are:
Finding ways to help – whether that be through monetary or other donations or practical help such as cooking meals. It has also been really important for my children to speak directly at times with family and loved ones who have been affected by the fires, to ask their own questions and express their own love and concern rather than just through me.
Sharing positive stories of resilience and generosity. There have been so many wonderful stories of resilience and generosity in the midst of what at times has been such a terrible time for Australians. Whether it be tribes of people or the army reserves helping out other people or our wildlife – we have been consistently trying to share these stories and uplifting images with our children.
Prayer and meditation – for those with a spiritual faith you will know how important prayer and meditation are, particularly during times of crisis. As a family we have been praying daily for those affected by the fires and for rain. Interestingly it is usually my children that ask to do this together each day. It has been one of the really important ways they have found to respond positively and with hope to the current bushfire situation.
Chambial, S., Dwivedi, S., Shukla, K. K., John, P. J., & Sharma, P. (2013). Vitamin C in disease prevention and cure: an overview. Indian journal of clinical biochemistry : IJCB, 28(4), 314–328.
Klepac, P., Locatelli, I., Korošec, S., Künzli, N. & Kukec, A. (2018).
Ambient air pollution and pregnancy outcomes: A comprehensive review and identification of environmental public health challenges,
Environmental Research 167: 144-159. Accessed here https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/30014896
NSW Health (n.d.). Particulate matter (PM10 and PM2.5). Retrieved from https://www.health.nsw.gov.au/environment/air/Pages/particulate-matter.aspx
Rafferty, M. (2020). How to protect the air inside your home from smoke and other pollutants. Retrieved from https://www.choice.com.au/home-and-living/cooling/air-purifiers/articles/keeping-smoke-and-pollutants-out-of-your-home
Song, E. (2020). How to Detoxify When Air Pollution is High. Retrieved from https://healthykidshappykids.com/2018/11/10/air-pollution-detoxification/?fbclid=IwAR1n4Gu6xf_uAC6HfL-zaBkm9Us06O6UNoyeFOLwJjLxmvYAYrbZRzv1fdA
Tamburlini, G., Ehrenstein, O., von Bertollini, R. (2002). Children’s health and environment : a review of evidence : a joint report from the European Environment Agency and the WHO Regional Office for Europe. World Health Organization Regional Office for Europe & European Environment Agency. Retrieved from https://apps.who.int/iris/handle/10665/107338
Wood, E (2020). Older Australians and those with heart conditions urged to avoid bush fire smoke. Retrieved from https://www.thesenior.com.au/story/6569293/heart-health-risk-from-fire-smoke/