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 35 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?

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