If you’re in Australia, you will have heard the term PM2.5 in the news a lot lately, with more than 10 million people in Australia’s most populated cities having been exposed to unprecedented levels of smoke pollution, which is thick with harmful PM2.5 particles and noxious gases.
PM2.5 levels in Sydney have exceeded those of some of the worst days in Beijing and New Delhi, with readings above 2,500 µg/m³.
World Health Organisation guidelines for particulate matter stipulate that levels should not exceed a 24-hour average of 25 µg/m³.
On New Year’s Day, 2020, in our nation’s capital, Canberra, the 24-hour average PM2.5 level recorded was 855.6 µg/m³ - this is 34 times higher than World Health Organisation guidelines, at one point the Air Quality Index hit 4,650.
On 14 January it was Melbourne’s turn to take out the top spot for the worst air quality in the world, peaking at 470 µg/m³.
It’s likely you’re being exposed to PM2.5 pollution regardless of whether you’re in a bushfire affected area, as it also comes from any other type of wood smoke, and traffic pollution.
In Britain, wood smoke creates more than twice as much particulate matter as all the country’s traffic. Heating with wood contributes to more than 20% of wintertime PM2.5 emissions in California.
What is PM2.5 and how does it impact your health?
PM2.5 refers to ultrafine airborne particle matter, 2.5 micrometres or less in diameter.
PM2.5 particles make it difficult to breathe, particularly for people with asthma and other respiratory conditions. These particles are so small, they can enter your bloodstream and penetrate vital organs, including the brain.
One of Australia’s leading lung cancer specialists, Professor Alvin Ing, has voiced his concerns about the effects of long-term exposure to PM2.5 particles in Australian cities and rural towns, as a result of the bushfires.
“I am concerned that there is going to be a spike in lung cancers in particular, in the next decade and beyond, because of this prolonged exposure to high levels of toxic particles and carcinogens”, said Professor Ing.
What you need to know about Air Quality Reporting in Australia:
The Air Quality Index is designed to enable you to determine whether it’s safe to step outside. It takes into account not just PM2.5 but also ozone, nitrogen dioxide, carbon monoxide, sulphur dioxide, and visibility.
Air quality information varies from state to state and there is no requirement for real-time reporting. It is based on an average over 24 hours.
Victoria, Tasmania and South Australia provide hourly updates, whereas other states provide a 24-hour average.
Asthma Australia has issued an urgent call to the federal government for real-time and consistent air quality reporting in all states and territories. PM2.5 levels can increase quickly as a result of bushfire smoke, hence the need for real-time data.
The other thing that’s important to consider with these air quality readings is that they are taken at specific locations around Australia and won’t necessarily provide an accurate indication of the levels in your home, street or suburb. A good air quality reading does not necessarily mean the air that you are breathing is healthy. The most accurate way to determine what the air is doing in your home, office or outside is to purchase a good quality air monitoring device or laser particle counter. It's also important to take control of the air you breathe inside with a premium air purifier designed to remove not only PM2.5 but also finer particles including PM 0.3 using an H13 grade HEPA filter.