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?