How Sydney's smoke haze is affecting babies, the elderly, asthmatics and others

As the city battles poor air quality due to fires, experts advise how vulnerable groups can minimise the impact on their health.

Sydney has been covered in a blanket of smoke this week caused by back-burning in preparation for what could be one of the worst bushfire seasons the country has faced.

With huge areas of Queensland, NSW and the Northern Territory already battling fires, preparations are in place ahead of a forecast hot summer.

But with it comes poor air quality and health risks, particularly for vulnerable groups including children, the elderly and those with medical conditions who are most susceptible to air pollution.

A photo of swimmers at a Sydney beach while there's smoke haze in the air from hazard reduction burning.
Back-burning by the Rural Fire Service (RFS) has shrouded Sydney with a smoke haze. Source: Getty

Here's what you need to know about the health risks impacting vulnerable Aussies, and what you can do to mitigate them.


"Keep babies indoors, away from the ambient (outdoor) air, and reduce the ambient air coming into your home," Professor Camille Raynes-Greenow, from Sydney University’s School of Public Health told Yahoo News.

"This means keeping the windows closed if the air quality is particularly poor or very poor in your area".

If the air quality is extremely poor then it may be worth considering relocating to an unaffected area, she said, like a car with recirculated air-con turned on — but only in "extremely poor air quality situations, or where you can't keep the indoor air clean."

Young children

While we can't keep children "locked up" inside, Camille suggests, in areas where the air quality is poor or very poor, "it's best to stay indoors as much as possible" as children's lungs are still developing.

"Don’t go to the playground," she advised. "Instead, go to a large indoor venue, like a library, or an indoor pool, or a shopping centre, or maybe one of the large indoor play centres.

"Anywhere where the air is clear, and you can keep the children happy and keep your sanity.

Pregnant women

Exposure to high levels of air pollution over longer time periods (ie weeks to months) may be linked to adverse pregnancy outcomes, according to NSW Health. So pregnant women should adopt the same controls as young children, Camille said.

"Stay indoors and avoid the ambient air. Don’t do your outdoor pregnancy exercise routine on these days," she said. "You don’t need to put that extra stress on your body that is working hard growing a baby."

A photo of trees on fire as part of a hazard reduction blaze at Warragamba, west of Sydney, last week.
A hazard reduction blaze at Warragamba, west of Sydney, last week. Source: RFS


The advice is pretty similar for older Australians who, just like children, are also "more sensitive to poor air quality," Dr Rochford said. Air pollution can aggravate heart disease and stroke, lung diseases such as chronic bronchitis (also called chronic obstructive pulmonary disease or COPD) and asthma, according to NSW Health.

"Stay indoors as much as possible with windows and doors closed until outdoor air quality is better,” the Department of Planning and Environment website says. Older people can also consider visiting a library or shopping centre if there's no clean air at home, and it's safe to do so.

Asthma sufferers

Those who suffer from asthma are especially vulnerable during this time. "Asthma can be triggered by various things and days where air quality is poor is one of them," Dr Rochford said.

"If you normally go out and have a run, exercise in the park, or go for a long walk, it may actually be wiser to say 'not today'," Professor Hespe added, suggesting asthma sufferers should also stay inside where possible. Also, have your reliever handy.

What should everyone be doing?

Dr Rochford also recommends buying "some high-quality air filters and air purifiers that can help with air within your home" and "making sure the windows are closed".

He says "major symptoms" of respiratory issues to look out for include difficulty of breathing, difficulty speaking, coughing, wheezing, and a tightness in the chest. If problems persist, seek medical advice.

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