Status:
Resolved
Health advisory:
180003
Date Issued:
01 May 2018
Issued by:
Professor Charles Guest, Chief Health Officer
Issued to:
Health professionals

Key messages

  • Smoke from bushfires and planned burns can reduce air quality in rural and urban areas, and may affect people's health.
  • Each year, Forest Fire Management Victoria undertakes planned burns on public land state-wide to reduce bushfire risk. The planned burning program is seasonal, usually during autumn to early winter.
  • Health services may see an increase in people presenting with respiratory symptoms associated with smoke exposure.

What is the issue?

Smoke from planned burns is impacting populated areas of Victoria and affecting air quality. Smoke from private stubble burns and wood heaters may also contribute to reduced air quality.

Programs of planned burning led by Forest Fire Management Victoria occur each year in Victoria during autumn and early winter. Planned burns reduce bushfire risk by reducing the amount of fuel for bushfires and keep plants and animals healthy. However, the smoke from planned burns can affect people's health in the same way as the smoke from unplanned bushfires.

Health services may see an increase in people presenting with respiratory symptoms associated with smoke exposure, particularly on days when winds are light and smoke is not dispersed.

Who is at risk?

Some people are more sensitive to the effects of smoke exposure:

  • People over the age of 65 years, smokers, and people with pre-existing heart or lung conditions (including asthma) may experience adverse health effects earlier and at lower smoke concentrations than healthy people, and their symptoms may be worse.
  • Children 14 years and under are also more sensitive to smoke because they are more likely to be active outdoors, their respiratory systems are still developing, and they breathe more air per body weight than adults.

Symptoms and transmission

Smoke is a mixture of different-sized particles, water vapour and gases.

The biggest health threat from smoke comes from fine particles (PM2.5). This is because these particles can be breathed deep into the lungs, cause breathing problems, and worsen pre-existing medical conditions such as asthma and heart disease.

Smoke can affect people differently, depending on age, pre-existing medical conditions such as asthma or heart disease, and the length of time they are exposed to the smoke.

Signs of short term smoke irritation such as itchy eyes, sore throat, runny nose and coughing usually clear up in healthy adults once they are away from the smoke.

The effects of smoke exposure on people's health are worse when they do physical activity.

Recommendations

Health professionals treating people affected by smoke exposure should encourage people with pre-existing conditions, including asthmatics, to take their medication, follow their treatment plan and if necessary, seek further medical advice if symptoms such as breathing issues, wheezing or tightness in the chest persist.

There are simple steps that health professionals can recommend to patients to reduce exposure to smoke:

  • Limit prolonged or heavy physical activity.
  • Stay inside if possible with the windows and doors closed.
  • Switch air-conditioners to recirculate or reuse air. If they do not have that function, turn them off.
  • Try to take an air-conditioned break elsewhere if it is safe to do so and your home is uncomfortable.
  • Look out for elderly neighbours or other people at risk.
  • Monitor air quality on the EPA Victoria AirWatch website.
  • Look for information and warnings on the VicEmergency website or app.

More information

Clinical information

Bushfire smoke and planned burns

Consumer information

Better Health Channel: smoke from planned burns

EPA AirWatch

VicEmergency

Forest Fire Management Victoria

Contacts

For more information please contact the Environmental Health Policy and Risk Management section at the Department of Health and Human Services on 1300 761 874 (24 hours).

 

Learn more about the Chief Health Officer.