As Australia’s East Coast has been blanketed in smoke from the NSW and QLD bushfires, Australians have choked on the air.
Ash has fallen from the sky. Sales for face masks have skyrocketed. And questions about when this will end has loomed.
So, we asked environment and health experts all the simple questions we keep asking ourselves.
What does hazardous air actually mean for our health?
“For the majority of people that are otherwise healthy, the level of pollution we’ve got at the moment is more than likely just going to cause irritable symptoms. So things like a cough, itchy skin or itchy eyes,” Professor Brian Oliver from the Woolcock Institute of Medical Research tells Mamamia.
“But for people with asthma or other respiratory diseases or cardiovascular disease, the pollution can actually cause their disease to get much worse and then they end up in hospital.”
Is wearing face masks actually necessary to protect ourselves from the smoke?
“It definitely is. The trouble is that we don’t know which face masks are effective and which ones are useful,” Professor Oliver says.
“There’s lots of different face masks from very cheap ones to expensive ones. We know the expensive ones [about $150] work – but they are perhaps too expensive for people. Whereas the $2, $10 or $30 ones, we don’t know which of these actually work and which don’t work.”
Dr Christine Cowie from the Centre for Air pollution, energy and health Research, adds that “P2/N95 masks are effective if fitted properly, but make it harder to breathe”.
“Many cloth and paper masks do not work well to filter out particles associated with bushfire smoke,” Dr Cowie says.
What is the long-term impact of the smoke on our health?
"We're not entirely certain yet. If the pollution was occurring day-in-day-out, every day of the year, we would know what the long term impacts are because we can look at countries that are heavily polluted and can make those sorts of comparisons," Professor Oliver explains.
"But this medium term exposure that we've got at the moment - where it's one or two months a year - we're not really sure what the impacts are going to be in the future.