'We can't pretend life is normal.' What the bushfire smoke is really doing to our children.

This is a truly hellish bushfire season. Even people lucky enough not to be caught up in the fires have been concerned about the smoke that’s blanketed towns and cities such as Canberra and Sydney.

Parents have been stressing about the possible long-term impacts on their children’s health.

Canberra emergency doctor David Caldicott understands that.

Kids on climate change. Post continues below video.

Video via WWF

“I have five kids under the age of 10, and it makes me nervous,” Dr Caldicott, who works at Calvary hospital in Canberra, tells Mamamia.

“People are very anxious about what’s happening right now but I think the more legitimate and probably more costly health impost on Australia, if this continues the way it is, will be the long-term effects on young kids’ health. And I think this is territory that nobody knows.

“We’ve seen in other areas where people have had exposure to bushfire smoke, particularly kids, they can become more susceptible to infections, and not just respiratory infections, all sorts of infections.”

On a number of recent days, Canberra has claimed the dubious title of the most polluted city in the world.

Summer 2019 Australia
Beachgoers are seen on Milk Beach as smoke haze from bushfires in New South Wales blankets the CBD in Sydney, Saturday December 7, 2019. Image: AAP.

"You can roughly equate these hazardous days with the equivalent of exposing your kid to the smoke of between 25 and 30 cigarettes a day,” Dr Caldicott says. “That’s where we’ve been at in Canberra.”

At the hospital, he’s been seeing more kids with respiratory issues than he normally would at this time of year, “like the start to a flu season”.

Even children who have never been diagnosed with asthma have been developing symptoms associated with smoke inhalation.

He says if parents notice their kids appearing “off and unwell”, which could involve distress in breathing, being reluctant to speak, or being off their food, they should see a doctor.

When it comes to his own children, Dr Caldicott is following the advice to keep them inside on days when the air quality is poor.

“I want to have the kids outside running mad,” he says. “But I am not prepared to run the risk of a chronic airways disease – or worse, things that I might not even have heard of yet – for the purposes of making pretend that life is normal. Life is far from normal at the moment in Canberra.”

Sotiris Vardoulakis, professor of global environmental health at the Australian National University in Canberra, advises parents to keep an eye on air quality levels where they live. That way, they can get their kids outside for a bit of exercise when the air quality does improve – even if it isn’t for long.

Image: Getty.

“When we can smell the smoke or we can see the haze, the levels are very likely to be hazardous and this is the time to get indoors,” he tells Mamamia.

He suggests that people should close doors and windows and try to block up any gaps, turn on their air conditioner (not evaporative cooler) and make sure it’s on recirculate mode, and use an air purifier, if they have one.


“I know it’s difficult to get hold of one – right now they’re sold out in Canberra.”

He says professional masks aren’t designed for children, so there’s no point trying to get them to wear one.

A good option, on a day when air quality is really bad, is to go to an air-conditioned public place like a shopping centre or library.

“I have young kids,” he says. “Last weekend I took them to watch a movie in an air-conditioned shopping centre.”

Professor Vardoulakis believes it’s very important to think about children’s mental health and not sound too “panicky” about the smoke.

Parents should also be aware that their children might be anxious after seeing news stories about the fires.

"All this puts pressure on kids. Sometimes grownups tend to forget about the psychological impacts on kids."

His long-term concern is that we might see more of these “intense” bushfires in the future.

“It’s something that’s not going to go away, it’s not going to be a one-off, unless we act more decisively on climate change mitigation – as well as fire-risk reduction, management of landscape and national parks, etc. But I think there is a need for a fundamental shift in policy and how we manage these kinds of emergencies.”

Dr Caldicott says he would be “absolutely aghast” if this turned out to be the new norm.

“I’m the emergency doctor, and I have a special interest in disaster response, and I am modifying the manner in which I bring up my children to deal with the poor political decisions that have been made in this country up to date. Frankly, I’m a little angry and resentful about that.

“This will be some bizarre dystopian future every goddamn season unless we change the circumstances which are creating these conditions which are harming our kids.

“The climate change movement, in Australia, I suspect, when it comes down to the rub, is probably going to be driven by mothers seeing, right in front of them, the impact of climate change on their children.”

... And there's more.

Mamamia Out Loud, our bi-weekly podcast, is coming to Melbourne for a live show, with 100 per cent of all ticket proceeds going to the Australian Red Cross disaster relief and recovery fund.

It's a brand new show, full of laughs and news and opinions and a few special surprises, with Mia Freedman, Holly Wainwright and Jessie Stephens, on February the 11th. You can buy tickets right now at See you there! 

Feature image: Getty.