Although some of the urgency has died down, bush­fire smoke con­tin­ues to per­me­ate where we live, work and play. As a chron­ic asth­ma and aller­gy suf­fer­er, per­son­al neces­si­ty has prompt­ed me to research air qual­i­ty exten­sive­ly. What fol­lows is a quick guide to what you can do if you are affect­ed by poor air quality.

It is tru­ly alarm­ing, in this emer­gency, to see so much mis­in­for­ma­tion going around. Air qual­i­ty and purifi­ca­tion is a sci­ence. It’s not a prod­uct. It’s not mar­ket­ing. It’s not opin­ion. Even with­out bush­fires, air pol­lu­tion is a seri­ous issue in Aus­tralia. In my case, the main trig­gers at home have been dust and smoke from wood heaters in my semi-rur­al neigh­bour­hood. At work in the city, the air is reg­u­lar­ly clogged with pollen.

The tl;dr summary:

  • Under­stand your per­son­al triggers
  • Avoid­ance is the best strategy
  • A face mask may pro­vide lim­it­ed com­fort in spe­cif­ic circumstances
  • Vac­u­um­ing may reduce dust and heav­ier particles
  • Mea­sure the prob­lem and estab­lish a base­line for comparison
  • Check the air qual­i­ty forecasts
  • On the go, car­ry a portable air qual­i­ty detector
  • At home, a whole-house air puri­fi­er is supe­ri­or to room purifiers
  • Look for a true HEPA fil­ter – any­thing else is like­ly to be rubbish

Bush­fire smoke par­ti­cles are exceed­ing­ly tiny. They will pass through most kinds of fil­tra­tion and deep into your lungs, through to your blood­stream. The best approach is com­plete avoid­ance. Stay indoors, prefer­ably in an area that does­n’t have much smoke. But that’s much eas­i­er said than done, and many of us need to leave the house to work.

Isn’t a face mask enough? A P2/N95 (or bet­ter) rat­ed face mask might pro­vide lim­it­ed relief, and it becomes exhaust­ed pret­ty quick­ly. It must form a tight seal around your mouth and nose, or else the air will take the path of least resis­tance and bypass the fil­ter. Don’t both­er if, like me, you have a beard.

Regard­less, there’s a good chance that par­ti­cles will enter your air­ways. Sinus irri­ga­tion is the best way to flush the par­ti­cles from your nasal air­ways. Also take mea­sures to pro­tect your eyes. If you can’t avoid the smoke, refrain from wear­ing con­tact lens­es and flush your eyes if they feel irritated.

Can you reduce the prob­lem with bet­ter clean­li­ness? My vac­u­um clean­er does a pret­ty good job of man­ag­ing my dust aller­gy at home. Use one with a gen­uine HEPA fil­ter, so that it does­n’t spit the dust back into the air (mak­ing the prob­lem much worse). Com­bined with some anti­his­t­a­mines and a good nasal spray, my issues with dust have dropped significantly.

As gen­er­al advice not spe­cif­ic to bush­fires, I strong­ly rec­om­mend that you try to iden­ti­fy and mea­sure your prob­lem. That will help to decide your next steps. Do you have an aller­gy? Are you sen­si­tive to par­ti­cles in the air? What kind of par­ti­cles? Is it a sea­son­al problem?

The Bureau of Mete­o­rol­o­gy lists a range of resources to check air qual­i­ty. The reports and fore­casts from AirVi­su­al are a fan­tas­tic place to start. Type in your loca­tion to know what’s hap­pen­ing in your area. Install the mobile app for alerts as you move around.

I’ve tried a num­ber of mea­sure­ment tools out there. Dylos units are great, but pricey. I real­ly like my Atmo­tube Pro. I can car­ry it wher­ev­er I go, hang­ing from my bag or the belt-loop on my trousers. It’ll warn me when the air is unsafe, so I can take eva­sive action before I start to feel it.

What­ev­er you get, you want some­thing that can mea­sure PM10, PM2.5 and PM1 (very fine par­ti­cles, like bush­fire smoke). Most impor­tant­ly, you must be able to trust it. I checked my Atmo­tube Pro against a few oth­er meters and found it to be accu­rate enough.

Once you get some num­bers and estab­lish a base­line, you can also mea­sure the effec­tive­ness of any actions you take. Oth­er­wise, you’re just spend­ing time and mon­ey for no mea­sur­able effect.

A good air puri­fi­er can make a huge dif­fer­ence, but there are a lot of over­priced gim­micks out there. The only sci­en­tif­i­cal­ly-proven method for par­ti­cle fil­tra­tion is a HEPA fil­ter. You want some­thing that meets the H13 stan­dard (med­ical grade, like they use in hos­pi­tals). Stay away from less-effec­tive “HEPA-like” or MERV fil­ters. Then all that’s need­ed is a pow­er­ful fan to force the air through the fil­ter. That’s lit­er­al­ly all that you need. Beware of prod­ucts that boast of mul­ti­ple fan­cy stages of fil­tra­tion. That’s just mar­ket­ing BS to con­fuse you into part­ing with your cash. You worked hard for that mon­ey; don’t give it up so easily.

An acti­vat­ed car­bon fil­ter can be option­al­ly added to reduce volatile organ­ic com­pounds (VOCs), gasses and odours. But make sure that the car­bon is present in suf­fi­cient con­cen­tra­tion to make a dif­fer­ence. Expect it to be a vis­i­bly sep­a­rate fil­ter, not just sprin­kled on.

I’ve exper­i­ment­ed with a num­ber of in-room air purifi­ca­tion units, start­ing with a small Cli~mate mod­el (cheap to buy, but expen­sive to main­tain the fil­ters) and end­ing with a Xiao­mi 2S. The Xiao­mi is pret­ty decent and not too expen­sive to main­tain. The best in-room unit would prob­a­bly be the Squair, but the lack of a local dis­trib­u­tor makes it expen­sive to buy in Australia.

The ulti­mate is whole-house fil­tra­tion. A whole-house puri­fi­er cre­ates pos­i­tive air pres­sure, pre­vent­ing par­ti­cles from enter­ing your home in the first place. An in-room puri­fi­er, by con­trast, con­stant­ly fight­ing to man­age par­ti­cles fly­ing in from oth­er rooms. This also has the love­ly side effect of reduc­ing the need for dust­ing. By improv­ing the cir­cu­la­tion of air in your home, it can keep the air fresh­er and improve the effi­cien­cy of your exist­ing heating/cooling systems.

I end­ed up going with Sanc­tu­ary Air. The result has been astound­ing and the price was far less than I was expect­ing. The pow­er con­sump­tion is only around 100W for the whole house, not much more than what a sin­gle room puri­fi­er would need. And the fil­ters (H13 HEPA and active car­bon) are cheap and only need replac­ing after 3–5 years. I con­sid­er it to be an awe­some, no-fuss invest­ment for my whole fam­i­ly. On days where the air out­side was thick with bush­fire smoke and AirVi­su­al report­ed the con­di­tions to be dan­ger­ous, the inside of my house was clear and comfortable.

By way of exam­ple, here’s how my Atmo­tube Pro report­ed the air in my back­yard on 6 Jan­u­ary, a day of severe bush­fire smoke in my area:

But inside the house, the air was clean!

Nat­u­ral­ly, there will always be some par­ti­cles in the air. The goal is to keep it at lev­els that don’t cause a problem.

What approach­es have worked for you?