Sydney's Bushfire Smoke Pollution Is Now The Worst In NSW's History

sydney bushfire smoke air quality pollutionImage: Getty Images

Sydney has once again found itself facing some of the worst air pollution in the world due to bushfire smoke drifting in from one of the most devastating bushfire seasons Australia has ever faced.

Sydney Has Its Worst Air Pollution Day On Record

The bushfires have been ravaging much of Australia's east coast for weeks and while Sydney has been mostly spared, its air quality has not.

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This post was originally published on December 4.

Sydney-siders have awoken to another day of the city being shrouded in dense bushfire smoke due to the ongoing bushfires devastating much of NSW. It marks yet another day the city, and much of the state, has faced record-breaking poor air quality ratings in recent weeks. Something that has become a concerning daily reality.

Confirming our suspicions, the NSW Department of Planning, Industry and Environment has told Gizmodo Australia that this recent run is now the longest and most widespread in the state's history.

"NSW has experienced other periods of poor air quality that lasted several weeks, including the 1994 Sydney bushfires and the Black Christmas bushfires of Dec 2001-Jan 2002," a department spokesperson told Gizmodo Australia. "This event, however, is the longest and the most widespread in our records."

"The most severely affected areas to date are regional and coastal areas in Northern NSW, as these have been closest to the most severe fires. Additionally, cities and towns in the Hunter region, Central Coast, Sydney, Illawarra and South Coast have also received significant pollutants carried by wind, and now have significant bushfires."

Air quality ratings are taken daily by the department and can be found on its air quality index. For a number of days in recent weeks, NSW, and specifically Sydney, has clocked 'poor' and 'very poor' air quality days. For a rating to be graded as 'poor', it needs to get an air quality index (AQI) rating of between 100 and 149. 'Very poor' ratings are between 150 and 199 while 'hazardous' days are 200 or more. When pollution reaches these heights, the department issues an alert and recommends outdoor activities are cut back or postponed. On November 22, nearly every region of Sydney recorded an AQI of 200 or more, marking the worst air quality day since the department began measuring pollution. Richmond, in Sydney's far north-west, was hit particularly bad, reaching an AQI of 640.

"During the bushfire emergency our network has recorded some of the highest air pollution ever seen in NSW, particularly for PM2.5, which are particles less than 2.5 micrometres in diameter," the department spokesperson said.

Particulate matter, or PM, are the particles that make up the pollution we can generally see. The worst of them is PM2.5, meaning the particles measure 2.5 micrometres or less in diameter. These pollutants are particularly dangerous as they can enter the lungs through cavities but are also small enough to enter your bloodstream and can cause detrimental health effects. PM10, 10 micrometres or less, can also be hazardous.

Image: NSW Department of Planning, Industry and Environment

With the situation not looking likely to improve in coming weeks as conditions remain dangerous, the NSW Health Department has warned people take precautions to limit the impact of the smoke pollution on their health.

"For the week ending 1 December 2019, emergency department presentations for asthma or breathing problems were higher than usual across NSW with 1126 presentations. Ambulance calls for breathing problems were also higher than usual with 2214 ambulance calls received, higher than average for the week of 1787," a NSW Health spokesperson told Gizmodo Australia.

"NSW Health continues to remind people with respiratory conditions to avoid outdoor physical activity when there’s smoke around and people with asthma should also follow their Asthma Action Plan and carry their relieving medication. Smoke might cause no more than eye or throat irritation for most people, but those with known respiratory conditions, like asthma, need to be cautious."

The health department added that smoke avoidance was the best method to avoid health problems, where possible, and that shutting windows, staying indoors and using air conditioning can help reduce exposure.

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