Sydney choking on smoke from bushfires: What GPs need to know

Matt Woodley

19/11/2019 2:53:25 PM

Health warnings have been issued in the face of ‘alarming and dangerous’ levels of air pollution in NSW, with a forecast heatwave likely to exacerbate what is a looming public health issue.

Bushfire smoke blanketing Sydney
Parts of Sydney recorded PM2.5 levels 30 times higher than maximum recommended national standards. (Image: AAP)

Australia’s largest city currently has the 13th poorest air quality in the world, according to live air quality rankings.
The high level of pollutants has prompted blanket government warnings for people to stay inside ‘as much as possible’ and avoid outdoor exertion.
Some areas of New South Wales, such as Prospect in Sydney’s north-west, have been exposed to ‘hazardous’ toxic inhalable Particulate Matter 10 (PM10) levels nearly eight times higher than maximum concentrations allowed under national air quality standards.
Particle matter smaller than 2.5 microns (PM2.5), which is even more dangerous and can lead to devastating health impacts, has been recorded at 30 times above recommended maximum concentration levels.
Associate Professor Vicki Kotsirilos, who has previously advised the Victorian Government on air-quality-related health issues, told newsGP the current level of pollutants in NSW is ‘exceptionally high’ and will likely lead to people presenting with a range of respiratory illnesses.
‘These figures are alarming and dangerous; not only for people with existing heart and lung disease, but healthy people as well,’ she said.
‘Particularly in populations who have high exposure, GPs may be confronted with an increased number of patients coming in with asthma attacks, increasing angina, respiratory problems, bronchitis, allergies, and sinusitis.
‘It’s important to talk to them about prevention, avoiding the air pollution as much as possible, and starting preventive asthma medication earlier if they suffer asthma, not waiting until they’re unwell.’
A potentially record-breaking heatwave forecast for parts of NSW this week is likely to exacerbate the bushfires still raging across the state, worsening the state’s air quality. This has led NSW Health Director of Environmental Health Dr Richard Broome to issue a public health alert.
‘We’re expecting temperatures over 40⁰C for some rural areas of NSW and in the high 30s for western Sydney,’ he said.
‘This is the first really hot period of summer and I’d encourage everyone to take the risk of heat related illness seriously.
‘We know that heatwaves cause severe illness, hospital admission and even deaths, and that people are more sensitive to heatwaves early in the season.
‘The combination of heat and poor air quality adds to the risk.’
According to Associate Professor Kotsirilos, prolonged exposure to PM2.5 can have serious short and long-term health effects and, apart from people with pre-existing respiratory and cardiac conditions, susceptible groups such as children, pregnant women and the elderly are most at risk.
‘Studies show that PM2.5 levels even below 25 grams per cubic metre can cause harm,’ she said.
‘For example, weeks of exposure in pregnancy – which we’re likely to see with these bushfires – can impact the unborn child as it increases the risk of low birthweight.
‘The closer you are to the smoke, the worse it is. There is no safe level of air pollutants. If possible, the best advice is to keep away and reduce your exposure.’

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