How To Know When To Walk Your Pooch, Hit The Beach Or Go For A Run In Sydney’s Hazardous Smoke Haze

By Erin Bromhead
15th Jan 2020

Sydney Air Quality

“Hey Siri, what’s the air quality like in Sydney right now?”

After months of bushfire smoke blanketing our city, kicking off your morning by checking in on this real-time Air Quality Index (AQI) map has become the new norm.

This week, NASA has predicted that Australia’s enormous billows of bushfire smoke will make it all the way around the world and back again, after already shrouding New Zealand and even South America—some 11,000 kilometres away—with its apocalyptic haze.

Though the recent easing of catastrophic weather conditions has offered some reprieve for firefighters and wildlife rescue on the ground, there are still more than 100 fires burning across the state, and we’re likely to be facing more smoke-filled days ahead.  

But what does the AQI mean, and when should you avoid public transport, your morning jog in the park, or your arvo stroll with your best furry pals? And do you need to wear a P2 mask?

Speaking to the Sydney Morning Herald, Asthma Australia boss Michele Goldman said, “When people are being exposed to such severe amounts of bushfire smoke for such an extended period of time, it is really critical that people are able to make decisions to try to minimise exposure."

The resounding expert advice is to minimise your exposure as much as possible. On those "hazardous" level days, preventing exposure entirely is pretty impossible—but there are ways you can still live your best life without risking your health. 

Don't Be Afraid Of The Great Indoors

Here’s a pretty logical question most of us have posed when looking out the window across the last month or two: should I stay indoors? The best way to answer that is to check that aforementioned local Air Quality Index (AQI) map. Updated hourly, this real-time AQI map is calculated by measuring the number of pollutants in the atmosphere, rating the air quality from “very good” to “good”, “fair”, “poor”, “very poor” and “hazardous”.

This month alone, we’ve had a number of “hazardous” air quality days, and on those, it’s strongly advised that you limit your outdoor activities. The Australian Medical Association (AMA) has warned that the health of thousands of Australians, both young and old, will continue to be affected by prolonged exposure to toxic smoke. GP’s across the state have seen a dramatic increase in patients presenting with watery eyes, scratchy throats, headaches and coughing, as well as the revival of serious asthma symptoms caused by bushfire smoke irritating the respiratory system via fine particles travelling into the lungs. 

Got Cabin Fever? Swap Your Run For ClassPass

There are no two ways about it: spending summer cooped up inside sucks. What about our all-important beach time? For a city that’s pretty downright obsessed with life outdoors, Sydney's near-relentless blanket of smoke has presented quite the quandary. While it seems almost absurd to discuss in the face of this fire season’s overwhelming devastation, exercise is definitely something that Sydneysiders have been umming and ah-ing over.

Again, the most obvious answer is to proceed with caution and check in on the AQI for your local area. If the air quality isn’t great, opt for an indoor workout class at the gym. Considering that you breathe deeper and faster when you exercise, your exposure to the air is increased—meaning if there are toxic particles in the air, you’re likely to inhale them quicker and more deeply. If you’re among the more vulnerable (under 14, elderly, pregnant, or have pre-existing heart or lung problems), the risk is even greater.

If cardio’s a must, fire up ClassPass and opt for one of Sydney’s epic new boxing classes. Barry's Bootcamp will provide a mega adrenaline rush if you feel the need to sweat. 

And, if you’re in need of some zen time in serene surrounds and the park is out of the question, try one of these beautiful, bright and airy yoga and Pilates studios.

They Look Severe, But P2 Masks Are A Good Idea

Are you looking for smoother, more radiant skin? Oh wait, wrong group chat. We’re talking about pollution masks here (not sheet masks), and if you're wondering if they're really necessary the answer is yes. They look severe—but if you're travelling outside on smoky days, you really should.

While most healthy people can withstand short-term exposure to polluted air, what we’re experiencing across Australia right now is unprecedented. Without sounding dramatic, there isn’t much historical data to refer to when it comes to long-term smoke exposure like this. Even if nothing comes of it, why not join the cast of masked Sydneysiders wandering the streets like extras from The Road and use one just-in-case?

The only ones that really work are P2 masks, because they can filter out the tiny (albeit nasty) particles in the air (the cloth masks don't work). P2 masks are the kind that builders use on construction sites and can be picked up at most hardware stores or online (try Bunnings or Officeworks). Just make sure they are properly fitted to your face with no space for air to get in, and you’re good (or at least good-er) to go.

Pooch Need A Stroll? Try To Walk Him Or Her When It's Safest

It’s not just humans who have been experiencing eye and throat irritation, increased heart rate and general fatigue from the lingering smoke—some people’s pets have been exhibiting the exact same symptoms. On top of breathing in hazardous air, animals may also accidentally be consuming ash when they self-groom or chew on plants and grass outside.

Essentially, if the air quality isn’t great and you can smell smoke in the air, you should keep your pets inside whenever possible. If they simply must roam, check the AQI and smoke forecasts to pick the best time to take them, as air pollution levels do fluctuate throughout the day. Also, for any entrepreneurs out there looking for their next big money maker—after a quick peruse online, it appears no one has made a P2 mask for a dog yet. Just sayin’.

To donate to bushfire relief, head over here

Image credit: Getty, Scout Pilates

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