Air

Effects of smoke


On this page:

Smoke from bushfires, planned burns and other sources can impact air quality. Small particles in smoke usually cause the most concern.

Smoke is a complex mixture of small particles and gases. The small particles can cause itchy eyes, a sore throat, a runny nose and coughing. For healthy adults these effects usually disappear quickly once they move away from the smoky conditions.

People with heart or respiratory conditions (including asthma) are more sensitive to the effects of breathing in smoke. Fine particles can aggravate these conditions, causing symptoms at lower smoke levels. Children, pregnant women and people over 65 may also be more sensitive.

To minimise the potential health impacts, everyone should avoid breathing in smoke. The Department of Health and Human Services offers this advice:

  • Smoke can affect people’s health.
  • People with heart or lung conditions (including asthma), children, pregnant women and people over 65 are more sensitive to the effects of breathing in smoke.
  • People with existing heart or lung conditions (including asthma) should follow the treatment plan advised by their doctor.
  • If you are experiencing any symptoms that may be due to smoke exposure, seek medical advice or call NURSE-ON-CALL on 1300 60 60 24.
  • Anyone experiencing wheezing, chest tightness and difficulty breathing should call 000.

Planned burns

Planned burning involves lighting fires under carefully managed conditions to reduce the risk of bushfire. The Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning (DELWP) and Parks Victoria undertake planned burning across Victoria, particularly in public land such as forests.

Assessing the effect of smoke on air quality

EPA Victoria’s air monitoring network measures air quality around the state. The main indicator EPA uses to assess the potential impacts of smoke is small particles. We look monitor two categories of particles:

  • PM2.5 particles with a diameter less than 2.5 micrometres, often referred to as ‘fine particles’
  • PM10 – particles with a diameter less than 10 micrometres.

If necessary, EPA can deploy PM2.5 air monitors during large bushfires or other major smoke events. We then provide air quality information to the relevant government agencies. If there are no particle monitors in an area, we will make a visual assessment of air quality.

The Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), via the Chief Health Officer, also provides advice on how to minimise the health impacts of smoke. Go to Bushfire smoke and your health on the DHHS website for further information.

Monitoring fine particles

The main pollutant EPA monitors in smoke-affected areas is fine particles (PM2.5). EPA and DHHS have developed a system of categories for smoky air based on international research. The categories are set by PM2.5 levels. Each category has cautionary health advice that suggests practical ways to reduce possible health impacts of smoke.

Table 1 shows the health categories based on PM2.5 levels.

Increased smoke levels decrease visibility, which makes it harder to see objects far away. Table 2 provides landmark visibility distances that can be used to estimate smoke levels.

Table 3 outlines suggested actions to minimise the impacts of smoke exposure. The advice depends on the concentration of PM2.5 in the air.

Visit EPA AirWatch to access the latest PM2.5 data measured at EPA’s air monitoring stations.

Health categories for fine particles

Table 1 shows the concentration of PM2.5 for each of the seven health categories.

Table 1: Health categories based on PM2.5 levels

Health category 24hr PM2.5
μg/m3
Low 0–8.9
Moderate 9.0–25.9
Unhealthy – sensitive 26.0–39.9
Unhealthy – all 40.0–106.9
Very unhealthy – all 107.0–177.9
Hazardous (high) – all Greater than 177
Hazardous (extreme) – all Greater than 250

How to self-assess air quality during smoky conditions

Increased particle levels reduce visibility. Observing landmarks is a good way to estimate this reduction. This can be used to self-assess the air quality. This may be especially useful when air monitoring data is not available.

Assess the air quality using Tables 2 and 3 below to decide what to do when smoke is in your area:

  1. When there is no fire in the area, identify landmarks visible from your home at the distances shown in Table 2.
  2. Use these landmarks as a guide to estimate the air quality in your area when smoke is present.
  3. When you can no longer clearly see a landmark this means air quality has deteriorated. Estimate the visible distance (by observation) of the nearest landmark that is just obscured by the smoke.
  4. Use the visibility distance determined in step 3 to identify the applicable health category. Look this up in Table 3, read the advice and take any precautions you think are necessary.

Table 2: Health categories linked to landmark visibility distances

Health category Visibility
Low More than 20 km
Moderate 10–20 km
Unhealthy – sensitive 5–10 km
Unhealthy – all 2–5 km
Very unhealthy – all 1.5–2 km
Hazardous (high) – all 1–1.5 km
Hazardous (extreme) – all 0.5–1 km

Cautionary health advice

Table 3 lists the health categories for fine particles in air. Each category has actions or guidance you can follow to reduce the effects of smoke exposure.

Table 3: Cautionary advice and actions

Health category Cautionary health advice
Low to moderate None.
Unhealthy for sensitive groups

People over 65, children 14 years and younger, pregnant women and those with existing heart or lung conditions should reduce prolonged or heavy physical activity. Where possible, these people should also limit the time spent outdoors.

Anyone with a heart or lung condition should take their medication as prescribed by their doctor.

People with asthma should follow their asthma management plan.

Anyone with concerns about their health should seek medical advice or call NURSE-ON-CALL on 1300 60 60 24.

For further information, updates and advice relating to  incidents affecting air quality in this area, please go to http://emergency.vic.gov.au/respond

Unhealthy all

Excessive smoke levels can not only aggravate existing heart or lung conditions, but may also cause members of the community to experience irritated eyes, coughing or wheezing.

Everyone should reduce prolonged or heavy physical activity.

People over 65, children 14 years and younger, pregnant women and those with existing heart or lung conditions should avoid prolonged or heavy physical activity altogether.

Anyone with a heart or lung condition should take their medication as prescribed by their doctor.

People with asthma should follow their asthma management plan.

Anyone with concerns about their health should seek medical advice or call NURSE-ON-CALL on 1300 60 60 24.

For further information, updates and advice relating to  incidents affecting air quality in this area, please go to http://emergency.vic.gov.au/respond

Very unhealthy all

Excessive smoke levels can not only aggravate existing heart or lung conditions, but may also cause members of the community to experience irritated eyes, coughing or wheezing.

Everyone should avoid prolonged or heavy physical activity.

People over 65, children 14 years and younger, pregnant women and those with existing heart or lung conditions should avoid all physical activity outdoors.

Anyone with a heart or lung condition should take their medication as prescribed by their doctor.

People with asthma should follow their asthma management plan.

Anyone with concerns about their health should seek medical advice or call NURSE-ON-CALL on 1300 60 60 24.

For further information, updates and advice relating to  incidents affecting air quality in this area, please go to http://emergency.vic.gov.au/respond

Hazardous high

Excessive smoke levels can not only aggravate existing heart or lung conditions, but may also cause members of the community to experience irritated eyes, coughing or wheezing.

Everyone should avoid all outdoor physical activity.

People over 65, children 14 years or younger, pregnant women and people with existing heart or lung conditions should remain indoors and keep physical activity levels as low as possible. These groups should also consider taking a break from the smoke by visiting a friend or relative.

Anyone experiencing symptoms that may be due to smoke exposure should consider taking a break away from the smoky conditions.

Anyone with a heart or lung condition should take their medication as prescribed by their doctor.

People with asthma should follow their asthma management plan.

Anyone with concerns about their health should seek medical advice or call NURSE-ON-CALL on 1300 60 60 24.

For further information, updates and advice relating to  incidents affecting air quality in this area, please go to http://emergency.vic.gov.au/respond

Hazardous extreme

Excessive smoke levels can not only aggravate existing heart or lung conditions, but may also cause members of the community to experience irritated eyes, coughing or wheezing.

Everyone should avoid all outdoor physical activity.

People over 65, children 14 years or younger, pregnant women and people with heart or lung conditions should remain indoors and keep physical activity levels as low as possible. These groups should also consider taking a break away from the smoke by visiting a friend or relative.

Anyone experiencing symptoms that may be due to smoke exposure should consider taking a break away from the smoky conditions.

Anyone with a heart or lung condition should take their medication as prescribed by their doctor.

People with asthma should follow their asthma management plan.

Anyone with concerns about their health should seek medical advice or call NURSE-ON-CALL on 1300 60 60 24.

For further information, updates and advice relating to  incidents affecting air quality in this area, please go to http://emergency.vic.gov.au/respond

What to do in the event of a bushfire

  • If there is an active fire in your area, safety is the first priority. Listen to advice from emergency services, the Country Fire Authority (CFA) or Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning (DELWP) on what you need to do.
  • Listen to local news reports for health warnings on smoke from the fires.
  • If possible, check EPA AirWatch for changes to health categories due to smoke in your area.
  • Assess visibility yourself if there is no air monitoring data for your area.
  • Use common sense. If it is smoky outside, it is probably not a good time for vigorous outdoor work or exercise or for children to play outside.
  • If it is practical and safe to do so, stay indoors. Keep windows and doors closed to keep the indoor air as clean as possible. Run air conditioners on ‘recycle’.
  • Follow the cautionary advice set out in Table 3.
  • If you have a heart or lung condition, are over 65 years old, are pregnant or have children, talk to your doctor about steps to protect yourself from smoke. If possible, do this before the fire season so you will know what to do. Only your doctor can advise on your specific health situation.
  • If you have an existing condition, ensure you take your medication as prescribed. If you have asthma, follow your asthma management plan.
  • If your symptoms worsen or you are concerned about your symptoms, seek medical advice or call NURSE-ON-CALL on 1300 60 60 24.

For information on fires in Victoria and general fire safety advice, please contact the Victorian Bushfire Information Line (VBIL) on freecall 1800 240 667.

Alternatively, use the CFA FireReady app. This is the official Victorian Government mobile app that gives timely, relevant and tailored warnings and information in Victoria.

To download the FireReady app use these links:

If you are deaf, hard of hearing or have a speech impairment, contact the VBIL through the National Relay Service (NRS):

  • TTY users phone 1800 555 677 then ask for 1800 240 667
  • Speak and Listen users phone 1800 555 727 then ask for 1800 240 667
  • Internet relay users connect to the NRS then ask for 1800 240 667

Page last updated on 20 Jul 2016