Australia’s Air Quality and Bushfire Smoke Health Hazards: What We Know So Far


Published: 15 January 2020

On the morning of the 14th of January 2020, Melbourne’s air quality was rated as the worst in the world.

Smoke covered Melbourne as wind pushed it across from bushfires in East Gippsland and the northeast of the state.

For two days, Melbourne’s air quality received a rating of hazardous from the Environmental Protection Agency Victoria. While we will see this rating lower and fluctuate over the week, it is worth keeping in mind there is no safe level of air pollution (Robertson and Hull 2020).

From midnight to 11 am on Tuesday, Ambulance Victoria received 110 callouts from people who were experiencing breathing difficulties - these numbers are 66% higher than average (Woodley 2020).

bushfire air quality
Melbourne’s air quality has received a rating of hazardous from the Environmental Protection Agency Victoria.

What Are the Known Health Complications of Poor Air Quality?

Associate Professor Louis Irving, head of the Respiratory Service at the Royal Melbourne Hospital explained that part of the danger is that the smoke carries suspended particles that can irritate the lungs and airwaves when inhaled, causing breathing problems and possible asthma attacks (Irving quoted by Waters 2020).

These particles can also be absorbed into the blood, having the potential to cause cardiac arrest (Waters 2020).

Associate Professor of Life Sciences at the University of Technology Sydney, Brian Oliver, explained that Melbourne’s smoke particle pollution (known as PM2.5) was equivalent to lighting up 20 cigarettes when it reached 412 on the morning of the 14th. It was comparable to lighting 50 cigarettes in Box Hill, where it reached 1000 (Fagan 2020).

Who Should Be Particularly Cautious?

  • People with lung conditions such as asthma and chronic bronchitis;
  • People who are pregnant;
  • People who are over the age of 65 or under the age of 14.

(Waters 2020; Woodley 2020)

People who are pregnant are particularly vulnerable as they breathe at an increased rate and their hearts have to work harder than those who are not pregnant to transport oxygen to the fetus (Robertson and Hull 2020).

For people who are pregnant, prolonged exposure to the poor air quality can lead to:

  • Low birth-weight;
  • Premature birth of the child;
  • High blood pressure; and
  • Gestational diabetes.

(Woodley 2020; Robertson and Hull 2020)

bushfires air quality face mask
Smoke carries suspended particles that can irritate the lungs and airwaves when inhaled, causing breathing problems and possible asthma attacks.

These conditions have both short and long-term side effects on babies. This includes the child having an increased risk of developing cerebral palsy and visual and hearing impairment (Robertson and Hull 2020).

People who are pregnant should seek medical advice if they experience signs of premature labour including abdominal cramps or contractions, heavy vaginal discharge, loss of fluid or vaginal bleeding, pelvic pressure and backache (Robertson and Hull 2020).

At these levels of pollution even people without medical conditions, including young people, should not be voluntarily exerting themselves to high levels of ventilation outdoors (Irving quoted by ABC News 2020).

image showing busfire severity
Imagery from NASA Aqua Satellite showing Australian bushfires. Highlighted in red are fire detections.

Precautions to Take

For high-risk groups, the best strategy is to reduce exposure to smoke as much as possible. This means staying indoors on days with very poor to hazardous air quality; sealing the house to prevent smoke coming in; and using reverse cycle air conditioners in the home (Lyons 2020; Robertson and Hull 2020).

Avoid creating smoke through lighting cigarettes; burning candles; and frying or grilling (Hull 2020) and avoid strenuous outdoor exercise (Waters 2020).

It is worth noting that in Melbourne there is already a very high demand for P2 masks.

People who are pregnant and live in a fire region should follow the instruction of emergency services. It’s advised to evacuate fire-affected regions as soon as possible with an emergency supply kit containing clothes, medications, water and food that doesn’t need to be cooked (Robertson and Hull 2020).

For Health and Care Staff

Health and care workers can expect to see a high number of patients and residents presenting with problems such as asthma attacks; increasing angina; respiratory problems; bronchitis; allergies; and sinusitis (Woodley 2020).

Going Forward

A study released by the British Heart Foundation found that in the next decade over 160,000 people are expected to die from strokes and heart attacks related to air pollution (The Guardian UK 2020).

Executive Director Jacob West explains, every day millions of us breathe in toxic particles, which enter our blood and stick to our organs - raising the likelihood of cardiac-related illness. This was a warning issued to a UK readership, whose air quality is better than ours at this current time (The Guardian UK 2020).

Climate scientists predict the catastrophic bushfires Australia is currently experiencing are a sign of what is to come around the world if temperatures are permitted to rise further. A rise beyond 2C would see catastrophic and irreversible climate breakdown (Harvey 2020).

bushfire air quality hazards
Even people without medical conditions should not be voluntarily exerting themselves to high levels of ventilation outdoors.


While the prediction of rainfall in the coming days will bring some relief to Victorians, the smoke forecast is set to return this weekend with a change in wind direction. It is worth keeping in mind that these fires will likely last for months to come - we have to prepare for ongoing poor air quality, for the foreseeable future.

Remember, the closer you are to the source of the smoke, the worse it is. There is no safe level of air pollutants. If possible, the safest option is to keep away and reduce your exposure.



Portrait of Ausmed Editorial Team
Ausmed Editorial Team

Ausmed’s Editorial team is committed to providing high-quality and thoroughly researched content to our readers, free of any commercial bias or conflict of interest. All articles are developed in consultation with healthcare professionals and peer reviewed where necessary, undergoing a yearly review to ensure all healthcare information is kept up to date. See Educator Profile