Parts of Australia have been a blazing inferno for three months now. While Brisbane has been fortunate, there have been sporadic bushfires in southern Queensland and northern New South Wales that have impacted our river city.

It’s obvious that riding through thick plumes of smoke won’t be good for you, but it’s harder to know when it is and isn’t safe to ride when you can barely notice the smoke layer.

And that’s exactly what we hope to shed some light on for you in this blog!

Bushfire smoke is no joke

Both Canberra and Melbourne were measured to have the worst air quality in the world at some point in the last month. Sydney only got down to the 9th worst in the world, but that was their worst ever measurement. What does it all mean?

The problem is that smoke is mainly made up of three things: small particles, gases, and water vapour. The ingredient that poses the biggest immediate danger is the particles. This particulate matter (PM) can be extremely small.

Particulate matter is measured in micrometres, and one micrometre is 1/1000 millimetre – extremely small. These particles are carried by wind and gases, and can be as small as 1 micrometre. For reference, the diameter of a human hair is around 75 micrometre, so these particles are extremely small.

Particles at around 10 micrometre (also known as PM10) are small enough to pass through your airways and into your lungs. Particles at PM2.5 are so small that they can enter your bloodstream through the lungs.

As these particles build up in your body, they can cause a number of health problems:

  • Irritated eyes and a burning sensation
  • Irritated nose and throat – runny noses are common
  • Aggravated asthma symptoms 
  • Aggravating lung diseases such as chronic bronchitis, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and emphysema
  • Aggravating heart diseases such as congestive heart failure and arrhythmia

What can you do? When can you ride?

New South Wales’ official advice for protecting yourself from bushfire smoke includes:

  • Avoiding vigorous exercise
  • Spending more time indoors
  • Spending time in air conditioned venues

You could also use a P2/N95 face mask to reduce your exposure to breathing in particulate matter, but will also make it harder to breathe, especially when you’re riding a bike.

The only real option to not expose yourself to serious health risks if the air quality is bad is to get a roller trainer for your bicycle and work up a sweat inside at home.

How to check the air quality

Air quality is measured by the Air Quality Index. You can find their scores by visiting their website

 

The website readings are colour coded, which makes them easy to understand. For some further nuance, here are the official guidelines for air quality readings:

  • 0-50 – Good: Air quality is considered good, and air pollution poses little or no risk.
  • 51-100 – Moderate: Air quality is acceptable; however, for some pollutants there may be a moderate health concern for a very small number of people who are unusually sensitive to air pollution. Active children and adults, and people with respiratory disease, such as asthma, should limit prolonged outdoor exertion.
  • 101-150 – Unhealthy for Sensitive Groups: Members of sensitive groups may experience health effects. The general public is not likely to be affected. Active children and adults, and people with respiratory disease, such as asthma, should limit prolonged outdoor exertion.
  • 151-200 – Unhealthy: Everyone may begin to experience health effects; members of sensitive groups may experience more serious health effects. Active children and adults, and people with respiratory disease, such as asthma, should avoid prolonged outdoor exertion; everyone else, especially children, should limit prolonged outdoor exertion.
  • 201-300 – Very unhealthy: Health warnings of emergency conditions. The entire population is more likely to be affected. Active children and adults, and people with respiratory disease, such as asthma, should avoid all outdoor exertion; everyone else, especially children, should limit outdoor exertion.
  • 300+ – Hazardous: Health alert: everyone may experience more serious health effects. Everyone should avoid all outdoor exertion

As you can see above, active children and adults should begin limiting their outdoor workouts already at 101 PPM. At the time of writing, parts of Victoria, including Melbourne, sit at around 160 PPM.

Unfortunately, the only way to stay safe from bushfire smoke is to avoid it as much as possible. If you have to ride, do it at the gym or on a roller trainer indoors. Smoke is very dangerous, and your one workout is not important enough to risk chronic lung problems.