Frequently Asked Questions about current air quality, smoke and heat conditions in the ACT

Thank you for your interest and questions, as they help us to help you better understand how to manage the challenges we are all facing as a community during unprecedented bushfire activity.

The following questions and answers have been developed to address the most common questions we are getting from the general public.

We urge you to share the link to this page with your friends and families as it may help to address their questions quickly too.

As we are unable to provide individual or personalised health advice, we suggest you speak to your GP or a health professional, if you have any concerns about your health.

Questions

P2/N95 Masks

Air quality

Air quality monitoring

Infants and small children

Childcare

Schools

Workplace

Water quality

P2/N95 Masks

Should I wear a mask?

Our advice to the community is that it is best to avoid exposure to the smoke by staying indoors where possible, and not using evaporative air conditioners which draw air into the house from outside.

Disposable P2 and N95 face masks (also known as respirators) are designed to filter out PM2.5 particles, including PM2.5 particles from bushfire smoke.

Evidence shows P2 and N95 masks do filter some smoke and are most commonly used in the workplace for employees who have to work outside. However, they cannot completely eliminate exposure to smoke, and as they can be difficult to fit and use appropriately, they are not an alternative to avoiding outdoor exposure.

Wearing a mask is not an alternative to taking measures to avoid exposure to smoke outdoors.

Ordinary paper masks are not effective at filtering smoke; however, do not cause any harm if people choose to wear them and they feel they get some benefit.

Masks are most useful when used for short periods of time when exposure to outdoor smoke cannot be avoided due to individual circumstances.  Masks should only be used indoors in exceptional circumstances.

If you choose to use a mask outdoors, please refer to our Use of P2/N95 Masks factsheet and watch this instructional video to learn how to fit the mask properly.

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Where can I get one?

The Commonwealth-supplied P2/N95 masks for people sensitive and vulnerable to smoke are available at pharmacies across Canberra and Winnunga Nimmityjah Aboriginal Health for their vulnerable clients. Pharmacists will consult with you about your need for these masks and will provide up to two masks.

We know that for some in our community, it’s not possible to avoid the smoke and they would feel more comfortable with access to a mask. P2/N95 masks can be purchased at pharmacies or retail stores, like hardware stores.

We suggest the best thing to do is call ahead to make sure stock is available.

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Who can have the free Commonwealth masks?

Individuals who can access these masks include:

  • people with existing chronic lung and heart conditions, such as asthma, chronic bronchitis or emphysema, and heart disease
  • all pregnant women, and
  • people over 65 years of age.

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How often should I replace my P2/N95 mask?

You should always refer to the manufacturer’s instructions provided with the mask about how to correctly fit the mask and when to change the mask. 

Generally, disposable P2/N95 masks are not intended for extended use (i.e. for more than eight hours). These masks trap the moisture you breathe out and the filtration provided by the mask becomes ineffective as it becomes moist or wet. How quickly a mask becomes moist depends on many factors such as the size of the person wearing the mask and the activity they are undertaking. The same brand of mask will last longer on a sedentary small person than on a large person undertaking strenuous physical activity. 

The general rule remains that if the mask becomes damaged, soiled, moist or contaminated it should be replaced. 

Refer to our Use of P2/N95 Masks factsheet and watch the instructional video to learn how to fit the mask properly.  
 

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Am I eligible for a free mask if I don’t live in Canberra?

Yes, the only eligibility requirements are that you are from a population group that is particularly vulnerable to smoke, including:

  • a person with existing chronic lung and heart conditions, such as asthma, chronic bronchitis or emphysema, and heart disease
  • pregnant
  • a person over 65 years of age

Refer to this FAQ page for information about where to get one.

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How do I dispose of my mask?

Most P2 face masks are not able to be recycled and should be disposed of in your general waste (red lid) bin. Some masks will come in packaging that is recyclable and can be disposed of in your (yellow lid) recycling bin. Please check information provided on products and packaging prior to disposal.

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Air quality

Why is Canberra frequently being inundated with smoke?

Unfortunately, with fire activity in our region continuing, the ACT is being impacted by heavy smoke conditions when the wind brings it in our direction.

Our advice at this stage is to expect this situation to remain for as long as the bushfires keep going. It’s unprecedented and can be uncomfortable and the best thing you can do when the smoke outside intensifies, is to stay indoors.

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Is the poor air quality going to affect my pregnancy?

If you are pregnant and worried about your baby, you can go to Centenary Hospital for Women and Children or Calvary Public Hospital Bruce.

Call Canberra Maternity Options on 5124 9977 and speak with a midwife who can help find the best care for you.

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How do I manage prolonged periods of smoke exposure?

For prolonged periods of exposure (that is, over days to weeks), smoke may begin to accumulate in your house, even with the doors and windows closed. When this occurs, you can consider using a portable air-purifier unit fitted with a high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filter.

These are available for purchase from some home electrical stores and some online retailers.

For an indoor air purifier to work well, the purifier must be matched to the size of the room it is in and the room must be well sealed.

If you can, plan a visit to a local air-conditioned building such as a library, community centre or shopping centre. When in a car, keep windows closed and set air conditioning to recirculate air. Spend as little time as possible transiting between the car and buildings.

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What are the health effects of long-term smoke exposure? Is it like smoking 50 cigarettes a day?

The cigarette analogy is not very helpful in describing the health effects of long-term health exposure to bushfire smoke. While cigarette smoke is a source of environmental particulate matter (PM), there are significant differences in the components of bushfire smoke compared to cigarettes. There is also very clear evidence on the long-term effects of smoking cigarettes. 

Most people who are exposed to bushfire smoke (away from the fire front) will have no long-term impacts and recover quickly from any short-term symptoms.

What is known is that long term exposure to PM2.5 air pollution is generally taken to mean years of exposure to PM2.5, as opposed to exposure periods of days, weeks, or months arising from bushfire events, such as those we have been experiencing across south eastern Australia.

Exposure to intermittently high levels of PM2.5 air pollutants in the ACT, on a background of air quality that is usually very good, is likely to have fewer long-term health effects than exposure to regularly elevated levels of PM2.5 year upon year.

Further information on long term effects is available on the ANU Research School of Population Health website. 

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What do I do when the smoke clears up?

Trust your senses. If the air looks clear and there is not a strong smell of smoke, try to get outdoors get some light exercise and open the doors and windows to homes, to clear out any smoke that may have found its way inside.

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Should we re-locate outside of Canberra to escape the smoke?

Unfortunately, with fire activity in our region continuing, most of south east coast of Australia is being impacted by heavy smoke conditions. We appreciate it’s a challenging time and difficult to tolerate but the best thing you can do is stay indoors. For more information and tips on how to manage during this unprecedented air quality situation, go to the ESA website.

There is no directive for anyone to leave Canberra under these circumstances and the decision to leave is a personal choice.

Please, be mindful of visibility on roads and bushfire activity outside of the ACT, if you choose to go somewhere else. Keep up to date on changing conditions and stay informed via the ACT Emergency Services Agency website and download the NSW Fires Near Me app.

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Why can’t you provide individual health advice?

The role of Health Authorities is to provide general health advice for the entire population, or specific segments of the population relevant to measures to take to mitigate the possible negative effects of a health hazard.

Individual health advice should only ever be provided by your chosen health professional like your GP or specialist. If you have concerns about your health related to the current bushfire smoke event there are many options to see a health professional. Refer to the ACT Health website for information about our health services.

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When is the poor air quality going to end?

The role of Health Authorities is to provide general health advice for the entire population, or specific segments of the population relevant to measures to take to mitigate the possible negative effects of a health hazard.

Individual health advice should only ever be provided by your chosen health professional like your GP or specialist. If you have concerns about your health related to the current bushfire smoke event there are many options to see a health professional. Refer to the ACT Health website for information about our health services.

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Air quality monitoring

What is an AQI?

An Air Quality Index (AQI) is a scale used to monitor air quality for a range of pollutants across the ACT, not just smoke, and it’s used against national standards.

During this unprecedented prolonged smoke event, it is the pollutant PM2.5 (or fine particulate matter), which is driving the increase in the AQI in Canberra.

At other times, this might be dust (PM10) or rarely, the ozone.

For more information about air quality, go to our Monitoring and regulating air pollution page, which also includes information about measuring air quality.

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How can I use the hourly PM2.5 data?

Hourly information is presented in a graph together with 24-hour rolling averages.

The hourly data aims to provide people a better understanding of the changing levels of smoke in the air throughout the day. This should help people manage their levels of exposure when we are experiencing relatively good air quality levels and as we continue to experience periods of heavy smoke, on and off.

For PM2.5, the standard states that the average over 24 hours should not exceed 25 μg/m3. Hourly data helps inform us as to the direction of the daily average and if we are likely to exceed the standard. For example, if the 24-hour average is currently above the standard, but our hourly readings are all below 25 μg/m3, we can see that air quality is improving and as a result, the daily average will also decrease in time.

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Why don’t you issue health advice based on hourly PM2.5 data?

Bushfires are constantly changing, during which PM2.5 levels in the air can also change rapidly, so it’s not uncommon for very high peaks of PM2.5 to occur intermittently for short periods.

Current available research, to estimate the health risks associated with short-term exposure to bushfire smoke over a period of days to weeks, have measured exposure based on 24-hour average levels of PM2.5.

The health advice categories for PM2.5 published on this website are therefore based on the 24-hour rolling PM2.5 average.

Whilst exposure to high levels of PM2.5 for less than 24 hours may have health effects for some people, there is currently limited research available to estimate these health risks for shorter exposures, as is the case for longer periods of time.

At this stage, we have consistently advised people to stay indoors when the smoke haze comes across Canberra.

ACT Health has been very proactive in issuing public information via social channels, providing information on this website, via the mainstream media and by giving the community 'a heads up', when the smoke haze is expected and what to do.

Information is also available on the ESA website.

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Why are some hourly bars missing in the new graphs? Why are some hourly bars reporting the exact same numbers for several hours at the Civic/Florey/Monash stations?

We’re using modern equipment that needs to be regularly serviced and this takes one to two hours. That’s why you may see missing data or data that looks the same across all stations.

Due to this unprecedented bushfire situation, these instruments are accumulating a significant amount of smoke particles on the inside and this puts a lot of stress on the equipment, especially our particulate monitors. We have increased our maintenance and cleaning efforts during this period, to manage this situation.

This can lead to problems with the instrument and increase the need for manual maintenance. We are aware that people closely monitor our web pages, and given the current situation, we will of course try and limit this maintenance to days where smoke levels are expected to be low.

We really appreciate everyone’s interest in the monitoring that we do, and we hope this explains why at times, the data seems a little different. Our best advice is that if the data does not seem to be reading as you may expect, come back an hour or so later because it could be that the equipment has been serviced.

In the meantime, trust your senses. If there is a strong smell of smoke and poor visibility from a heavy smoke haze, stay indoors. But if the air looks clear, we encourage people to go outdoors, get some light exercise and open the doors and windows to their homes to clear out any smoke that may have found its way inside.

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Why can’t “live” data be released?

The minimum reading that is available from our air monitoring instruments is five-minute data.

However, the data is not representative of the airshed surrounding the monitoring station and thus not a meaningful measure of ambient air quality.

Live data is affected by a range of environmental and mechanical inputs, such as fluctuations of ambient temperature, wind speeds and pump stability. The instruments used to measure air quality take this into account to provide accurate information about the air quality where they are situated. This results in a lag in the ability to give meaningful information about the environment in which they are positioned.

1-hour rolling averages is the best indication of the most current air quality in the area.

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Why is there no air quality monitoring station in Gungahlin?

The National Environment Protection (Ambient Air Quality) Measure prescribes the number of air quality monitoring stations depending on a city’s population.  In Canberra, the number of necessary stations currently is two. The Civic station is additional to the current NEPM requirements. 

The ACT Health Directorate will continue to monitor the need for additional stations as the population size of Canberra increases and evaluate where any additional stations should be situated.

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Infants and small children

What’s the advice about how to manage infants and small children during the smoke haze?

Our advice is that children should avoid physical activity outside. To minimise the risk to children and educators:

  • Stay indoors, with windows and doors closed
  • Stay in air-conditioned premises and switch the air-conditioner to ‘recycle’ or ‘recirculate’ to reduce the amount of smoke entering the building, and
  • Do not use an evaporative cooling system because it brings air in from outside.

If your child attends a childcare centre, stay in touch with the centre to ensure that medical plans for your child are up to date and correct and that the right medication is on hand, if they are more susceptible to smoke (for example, if they have asthma).

If you have concerns about a child’s health, you should seek medical advice from their doctor.

If they experience chest tightness, wheezing, or difficulty breathing, seek urgent medical assistance.

In an emergency, call triple zero (000).

 

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Can a child wear a mask?

The best way to minimise your child’s exposure to smoke is to avoid being outdoors where possible when there are high levels of smoke in the air.

Unfortunately, P2/N95 masks are not available in sizes small enough for children under 12 and ordinary paper masks are not effective at filtering smoke. That’s why the best way to protect children is to avoid exposure.

Children should also not wear adult masks, as they do not fit properly and can impede breathing.

Even though some overseas manufacturers make and market masks for children, these may be of poor quality and do not comply with various international and Australian Standards.

Use of respirator masks on children is not recommended for these reasons. Other than relocating to an area with better air quality, remaining indoors, in a safe place, is the best available protection for children and infants. Humidifiers or breathing through a wet washcloth do not prevent breathing in smoke.

The information on mask, and tips for minimising exposure is in our latest update on our web page health.act.gov.au/public-health-alert/heavy-smoke-and-hot-conditions-act

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Why are children and infants more susceptible to bushfire smoke than adults?

Children are more susceptible to bushfire smoke because they breathe faster than adults and have actively developing lungs, blood vessels and immune systems.

In children, particularly young children, short to medium-term exposure to bushfire smoke over a period of days to weeks is known to be associated with an increase in symptoms arising from irritation to the nose, throat, eyes and lungs.  Irritation of the airways and lungs can lead to an increase in symptoms such as sneezing and coughing.

Children with underlying asthma may experience an increase in the frequency and severity of their asthma symptoms.

The evidence for longer term health effects for children arising from short to medium-term exposure (weeks to months) to bushfire smoke is limited.

Our advice remains the same, please keep your children indoors as best you can, when the smoke haze makes its way across Canberra.

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What symptoms might children display?

Children who breathe in bushfire smoke may experience:

  • coughing
  • wheezing
  • eye irritation,
  • runny nose and
  • a sore throat.

Children with asthma, allergies, or chronic health issues may have more trouble breathing when smoke is present.

For children with asthma, follow their asthma action plan and have reliever medication at hand.

If you have concerns about a child’s health, you should seek medical advice from their doctor.

If they experience chest tightness, wheezing, or difficulty breathing, seek urgent medical assistance. In an emergency, call triple zero (000).

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How can I prepare for poor air quality from bushfire smoke?

During the bushfire season pay attention to local air quality reports.

Stay alert to smoke-related information on this website as well as news coverage and other public health advisories.

Here are some tips:

  • At home identify and create a "clean room" in your home
  • Choose a central room with few windows and doors
  • Ideally choose a room that doesn’t have a door that opens to the outdoors
  • Keep this room well-sealed at times when the air is smoky and ventilate the room by opening windows during times when the air is clear
  • If available considering purchasing a portable air cleaner you can use in this room.
  • Avoid ozone-generating air cleaners

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What about when thick smoke is present around my home?

Continue to listen to local reports and public health warnings.

Keep children indoors where possible with the doors and windows closed and sealed.

Here are some tips:

  • Use your “clean room”
  • If you have an air conditioner, run it with the recirculate function to keep outdoor smoke from getting indoors
  • Reduce health risks by avoiding strenuous activities
  • Keep the indoor air as clean as possible during periods of heavy smoke outside
  • In older or ‘leakier’ houses, filling gaps around the windows and doors with tape or towels may help keep the smoke out
  • Do not use gas, propane, or woodburning stoves, fireplaces, or candles
  • Never use natural gas or gasoline-powered generators indoors
  • Do not use spray cans.

To make the indoors just that little bit more pleasant, try not to fry or grill food and do not vacuum and don’t smoke, because all of these can contribute to poor indoor air quality.

Some domestic evaporative coolers are less likely to filter fine particles, such as smoke and may introduce smoke inside.

Only use an evaporative cooler if the system is filtered. If you have any questions about your evaporative cooler, please speak to the manufacturer or place of purchase as models may vary.

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Childcare

Should childcare centres close during smoke haze?

For information about child care centres, go to the ACT Emergency Services Agency website https://esa.act.gov.au/state-alert-declared-act-0 

Our advice is that children should avoid physical activity outside. To minimise the risk to children and educators:

  • Stay indoors, with windows and doors closed,
  • Stay in air-conditioned premises and switch the air-conditioner to ‘recycle’ or ‘recirculate’ to reduce the amount of smoke entering the building, and
  • Do not use an evaporative cooling system because it brings air in from outside.

Child Care Centre services should speak with families to make sure that medical plans for children with known conditions are up to date and that the correct medication is on hand.

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Schools

Should schools close during smoke haze?

For information about schools, go to the ACT Education Directorate website at: https://www.education.act.gov.au/managing-air-quality-in-act-public-schools

Our advice is that children should avoid physical activity outside during heavy smoke conditions. To minimise the risk to children and educators:

  • Stay indoors, with windows and doors closed,
  • Stay in air-conditioned premises and switch the air-conditioner to ‘recycle’ or ‘recirculate’ to reduce the amount of smoke entering the building, and

Do not use an evaporative cooling system because it brings air in from outside.
Schools should speak with families to make sure that medical plans for children with known conditions are up to date and that the correct medication is on hand.
 

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Workplaces

What should workplaces do during smoke haze? Should they be sending workers home?

Due to the heavy smoke conditions impacting the ACT, WorkSafe is encouraging employers to look at mitigation strategies to control the current heat and smoke conditions.

Mitigation measures may include:

  • Avoiding or rescheduling the outdoor work if possible
  • Rotating workers to limit prolonged exposure
  • Providing P2 masks for those who need to do prolonged outdoor activity or workers sensitive to smoke.

Employers should undertake a risk assessment of their work activity and revise the assessment as conditions change.

For more information regarding outdoor smoke, please read ACT Health’s Outdoor Smoke factsheet.

To be kept up-to-date with the current State of Alert, please visit the ESA website at esa.act.gov.au.

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Is there a particular air quality index number that employers can use that indicates when employees should go home?

Worksafe ACT encourages employers to regularly review the PM2.5 monitoring data on the ACT Health website, and to look at mitigation strategies to control the current heat and smoke conditions, particularly by eliminating strenuous or outdoor work where possible (including postponing or re-scheduling). Employers should undertake a risk assessment of their work activity and revise the assessment as conditions change.

More information is available on the Worksafe website.

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Water quality

Page last updated on: 31 Jan 2020