Smoke haze expected to linger

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Poor air quality is expected to be an ongoing issue for the ACT as long as bushfires continue in the region, with Canberra’s topography also contributing to the lingering smoke haze.

woman with gas mask at cricket with smoke haze around
Bushfire smoke is a major public health concern, says environmental health expert at the ANU, Professor Sotiris Vardoulakis. Getty.

Professor Janette Lindesay from the Fenner School of Environment and Society at the Australian National University (ANU), said Canberra’s location – featuring iconic hills and ridges and a series of valleys – lends itself to smoke “accumulating and sitting in the atmosphere”, which is then difficult to disperse.

“We are getting a lot of high pressure system activities which means low wind speed, if any, so it doesn’t move the smoke,” Professor Lindesay said.

“We need to get some strong effective rain-producing systems coming through to move the air mass out and take the smoke with it.”

For the most benefit, Professor Lindesay said the wind “has to come from the north because that’s the only place where there are no fires”.

“We have a crescent of fires around us and that’s very unusual,” she said. “Fires are generally in one part or another, not everywhere at once around the ACT and they usually haven’t been around for so long.”

With rain forecast for later this week, Professor Lindesay said it could prove beneficial in helping clear the air, however acknowledged it can bring its own problems with the smoke and dust that was in the air entering the water supply.

“When you get a big concentration of that … that causes problems in terms of potability of the water and whether it is safe to drink,” she said. It could also have an impact on fresh water and marine ecology.

In terms of the long-term impact of smoke, Professor Lindesay said “it is not really known what the long-term consequences of what this smoke will be and we may not know for decades”.

Environmental health expert, Professor Sotiris Vardoulakis, from the ANU said bushfire smoke is a major public health concern.

“These very small particles in bushfire smoke can penetrate deep into the respiratory system inducing inflammation and even translocate into the blood stream,” Professor Vardoulakis said.

“For most people, it is like smoking a few cigarettes a day – it is increasing the risk of developing lung and heart disease in their lifetime.”

While communities have been impacted broadly by the bushfires, Professor Lindesay said the fires will also be a catalyst to further research.

She said while Australia already has a great deal of research going on about bushfires, “what I see emerging at the moment is a resurgence in interest in Indigenous burning and land practices and I think that’s really important”.

“There’s been a tendency to conduct science with a Western perspective … and perhaps not enough attention has been paid to the ways that Indigenous people manage the landscape.”

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