Explainer: how a dust storm, and hazardous air quality, can harm your health

A MAJOR dust storm swept through Sydney and regional New South Wales this week.

Red skies over Broken Hill on Wednesday night and Sydney on Thursday resembled those seen during intense bushfire activity and the massive 2009 dust storm.

The NSW government updated its air quality index to “hazardous”.

People were advised to stay indoors unless it is essential to go outside, minimise strenuous physical activity and seek emergency medical assistance if they experience breathing difficulties, chest pains, or if other serious health concerns arise.

The hazardous air quality warning arose because fine dust levels were high relative to Australian air quality standards.

Air quality levels of PM10 – particles at or less than 10 microns (µg) – were more than twice the Australian standard, of 50 µg/m³ measured over a 24-hour period, on Friday morning. They remained high throughout the day.

Perhaps of greater concern are the smaller PM2.5 dust particles, which were above the Australian standard of 25 µg/m³ at St Marys in Sydney’s west on Friday morning.

Fine PM2.5 dust particles can penetrate deep into the lungs and cause respiratory difficulties.

Short-term exposures aggravate asthma, increasing the number of emergency department visits, as well as causing wheezing and breathing difficulties.

Even for those not affected by asthma, exposure can cause coughing, a sore throat and a runny nose. Elevated dust exposure can also aggravate heart conditions.

For example, increased short-term exposure to both PM10 and PM2.5 has been linked to increased death and hospitalisation rates due to heart disease, arrhythmias (palpitations) and stroke.

The city of Newcastle is experiencing much worse conditions. On Friday morning PM10 levels were four times the Australian standard of 50 µg/m³ due to additional smoke particles from local bushfires.

Throughout the day PM2.5 levels in Newcastle have remained just below the maximum acceptable upper value of 25 µg/m³.

Fine dust particles are usually too small to see individually but high concentrations make them visible as a brown haze.

Even as the dust begins to clear, the unseen fine particles outside or even inside your house can still present a health risk.

It’s advisable to use any prescribed relieving medications and seek medical advice if symptoms do not improve.

For those who own an air conditioner, it may be appropriate to use it as long as the fresh air intake is closed and the filter is clean, preventing particles from being drawn into the home.

It is also important to keep an eye on air quality, which can be done in real-time via the NSW government’s air quality monitoring network.

The previous major dust storm in 2009 was made of predominantly natural elements – aluminium, silicon and iron.

These originate from desert soils and did not contain significant concentrations of toxic elements. The current dust storm is likely similar in composition.

While there is some evidence the source and composition of dust has health implications, the most critical factor is the size of the particles. Evidence shows there is no safe level of fine PM2.5 dust.

Dust storms like this and the one in 2009 are unlikely to present a long-term health risk.

However, they are concerning in the short term, especially for the elderly, people with pre-existing respiratory conditions and children, who breathe more air per kilogram of body mass than adults.

A health impact assessment of the 2009 dust storm showed marked increases in emergency admissions for asthma and respiratory conditions but no significant increase in cardiovascular (heart and vessel) hospital admissions.

The age groups most affected were those known to be most vulnerable – people older than 65 and those aged five and younger.

A similar situation is being experienced in California, where wildfires are causing high concentrations of dust and smoke in the air and significant concerns about human health.

Australia generally enjoys good air quality, which is not the case for many lower- to middle-income countries.

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), more than 600,000 children died in 2016 due to air pollution.

Air quality is a global public health issue. Around 91% of the world’s population live in areas where the WHO’s fine particle (PM2.5) guidelines are not met.

For those concerned about dust, Macquarie University’s DustSafe program will provide information on the dust in your home free of charge.The Conversation

Mark Patrick Taylor, Professor of Environmental Science, Macquarie University and Cynthia Isley, Researcher, Macquarie University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

The Conversation

Smokers at greater risk of developing schizophrenia

PEOPLE who smoke are more likely to be diagnosed with a psychotic disorder such as schizophrenia than those who don’t, researchers at the University of Queensland have found.

Their review of eight long-running studies found strong evidence of an association between smoking and mental illness, which they suggest is most likely caused by nicotine.

Associate Professor James Scott said the findings raised serious concerns about the increasing use of nicotine through e-cigarettes by young adults.

Dr Scott said the review found the risk of developing schizophrenia increased twofold for smokers.

“People who smoke tobacco have an approximately twofold increased risk of developing schizophrenia or psychosis,” Dr Scott said.

“While e-cigarettes reduce some of the harms associated with smoking, governments need to consider their potential to harm the mental health of young people.”

Dr Scott said e-cigarettes were often reported to be safe, and marketing was directed towards young people.

“More research is urgently needed to examine the association between e-cigarette use and psychosis, particularly in adolescents and young adults,” Dr Scott said.

“Until there is a better understanding of the harm of e-cigarettes, it would be safest that liquid nicotine remains illegal to buy in Australia without a prescription.”


Tradies and renovators reminded of fatal asbestos danger

Cancer Council Queensland has called for renewed awareness of the risks of asbestos after at least 166 Queenslanders were diagnosed with mesothelioma (a rare and fatal cancer caused by exposure to asbestos) last year.

Cancer Council Queensland CEO Ms Chris McMillan said Asbestos Awareness Week (November 19-25) provided an opportunity for tradespeople and home renovators to find out how to work safely with asbestos materials before starting a job.

“When breathed in, asbestos fibres raise a person’s risk of developing asbestos-related diseases, including mesothelioma,” Ms McMillan said.

“Sadly, there is no cure yet for mesothelioma and due to its aggressive nature, those diagnosed often have a very poor prognosis.”

The average time between diagnosis and death in Australia is around 11 months, according to Australian Institute of Health and Welfare analysis of all mesothelioma diagnoses and deaths recorded in the Australian Mesothelioma Registry (AMR) as at September 2018.

“We know that asbestos miners, transport workers, builders, plumbers, electricians and mechanics may be among the most likely to be exposed to asbestos in their workplace,” Ms McMillan said.

“Queenslanders who haven’t worked directly with asbestos but have been exposed to it can also develop mesothelioma, including people washing or cleaning work clothes with asbestos fibres on them or people renovating homes.”

Asbestos was once used in Australia in more than 3000 different products including fibro, flue pipes, drains, roofs, gutters, brakes, clutches and gaskets.

“It’s vital that Queenslanders take the warning seriously and protect themselves and their families from asbestos fibres,” Ms McMillan said.

“If you’re not sure whether something is an asbestos containing material, and it was built ore renovated before 1990, assume it is until you have it confirmed by an expert and if it needs to be removed, engage a licensed asbestos removalist.”

Ms McMillan said mesothelioma has one of the longest latency periods of all diseases, typically 20-40 years after exposure, and the signs and symptoms of the disease are often vague and similar to other conditions.

“Shortness of breath, sharp pains in the chest or a dull pain in the shoulder and upper arm, a persistent cough or a change in a coughing pattern can be symptoms of the cancer,” Ms McMillan said.

“If Queenslanders are concerned about their risk, especially if they think they have been exposed to asbestos, they should see their general practitioner for advice.”

Queenslanders should visit worksafe.qld.gov.au for information on asbestos removal and carrying out asbestos-related work.


Happy Healthy Yoga

New report shows we’re making healthier choices

MORE and more Queenslanders are smoking less, avoiding binge drinking and vaccinating their children according to a new report released today by the state’s Chief Health Officer.

Health Minister Steven Miles said The Health of Queenslanders 2018 report revealed a number of positive health outcomes for people right across the Sunshine State.

“This report shows that we are living longer, we are less likely to die early from preventable causes and we are largely able to access the services we need to treat and manage our health issues,” Mr Miles said.

“Most notably, this year’s report shows some significant achievements for prevention, including a further reduction in the rate of smoking, which has now fallen to 11 per cent.

“Since 2002, we have continued to see the prevalence of smoking decline thanks to the action that has been taken in Queensland and as a result, more than 300,000 people have avoided an early death.

“This is a considerable achievement considering smoking remains the leading cause of premature death and disease in Queensland.”

But, while the report found risky alcohol consumption is decreasing among young men, the statistics show it’s actually increasing in older males.

The number of young men aged 18-29 who consume alcohol at lifetime risky levels decreased by 31 per cent, while the prevalence of men aged 65 or older drinking excessively rose by 32 per cent.

Mr Miles said it was great to see young Queensland men were changing their relationship with alcohol.

“Our government is committed to changing Queensland’s binge drinking culture and to improve access to drug treatment and support services for Queenslanders who need them,” Mr Miles said.

The Health of Queenslanders 2018 is the seventh in the series from Queensland Chief Health Officer Dr Jeanette Young which began in 2006.

This year’s report, handed down by Dr Young in Parliament today, also showed immunisation coverage rates were high, currently at 95 per cent.

Further, it revealed 14 per cent of Queenslanders aged 14 and over had used an illicit drug, mostly cannabis, in the past 12 months.

To view the full report in full, click here.


Time to grow a MO’ for men’s health this Movember

We’re about to see many moustaches on the faces of Australian men this month, as Movember officially commences.

It’s the annual event in which men are encouraged to grow out their upper lip hair to raise funds and awareness for men’s health.

It comes as figures show that an alarming amount of Australian men are still dying too young, including 3,400 lives lost to prostate cancer and more than 2,000 suicides each year.

The Movember Foundation this year celebrates its 15th anniversary by returning bigger, better and…hairier than ever, as the only global charity focused solely on men’s health.

Last year, the moustache-growing season saw over 300,000 ‘Mo Bros’ and ‘Sistas’ around the world raise more than $80 million to stop men dying too young.

Rachel Carr, The Australia Director of the Movember Foundation says she’s seen men go through really tough times, and has witnessed first hand the impact that men’s health issues can have on Aussie men.

“Being part of the Movember movement is about raising the volume on men’s health and I’ll be joining our Mo Bros and Sistas in shouting from the rooftops this Movember.

“There’s still a lot of work that needs to be done – but with each Mo grown, dollar raised and story shared by our Movember community, we get close to our goal of stopping men dying too you,” Ms Carr said.

So grow a Mo’ this Movember, or get involved in one of the many ways. Head to movember.com to donate or participate.