Air quality in real time in the Mountains

While reports in Sydney media last week complained about the lack of real-time access to air pollution readings, Mountains residents have "near real time" local air pollution readings thanks to a year-long EPA project that locals campaigned heavily for.

And it was vitally important according to that group, as during the recent bushfires air exposure levels reached nine times the acceptable level in the Mountains.

Dr Maggie Davidson, a Western Sydney University lecturer in environmental health and a member of Blue Mountains and Lithgow Project Air Watch Steering Committee is analysing air quality data from ultra fine particles. She said the "current exposure limits for acceptable air quality, averaged over 24 hours are 50 g/m3 (micrometres) for PM10 and 25 g/m3 for PM2.5."

Those figures "were well and truly eclipsed during the December period at 450 g/m3," she added.

Peter Lammiman of Blue Mountains Unions and Community - the group which originally campaigned for the monitoring - said portable solar powered monitors installed by the Environmental Protection Agency and the NSW Department of Planning, Industry and Environment last May, give Mid Mountains to Lithgow residents instant online access to "near real time" local air pollution readings at bluemountains.sensors.net.au.

The sensors have come to the aid of thousands of Mountains residents worried about inhaling toxic smoke from the bushfire. KOALAs (Knowing Our Ambient Local Air Quality) had shown that since the Ruined Castle fire started at the end of last year, readings at the three Katoomba KOALA stations frequently registered as hazardous - the highest level.

Similar hazardous pollutant recordings had also been made on smoky days at Wentworth Falls, Lithgow and Springwood.

"Inhalation of toxic smoke can exacerbate a range of serious problems. It will probably be years before we know the full health impacts of the fires, but KOALAs let people know when ... it'd be safer to stay indoors," Mr Lammiman said.

Despite these readings the number of emergency presentations for respiratory illness at Blue Mountains Hospital is down on the previous year.

Nepean Blue Mountains Local Health District Public Health Medical Officer, Dr Sheena Kakar said: "Blue Mountains Hospital has continued to operate extremely well this bushfire season. There have been 657 emergency presentations for respiratory conditions since October 2019 ... down from 678 presentations upon the previous year."

Emergency department presentations for respiratory conditions were 226 since October 2019 and the figure was steady with the previous year's admissions of 224.

"Small children, the elderly and people with heart or lung disease including asthma are most susceptible to ...health effects from ...excessive smoke," Dr Kakar said.

Besides the KOALAs, there is the highest level monitoring technology at Katoomba which is also being analysed by Dr Davidson.

She hopes the EPA project continues after May.

  • The Centre for Air Pollution said bushfire smoke contains hundreds of different components but the most important for health is suspended fine particulate matter (PM2.5). These particles, 2.5 micrometres and below in size, can go deep into the lungs and enter the bloodstream. PM 2.5 can affect the respiratory, cardiovascular and immune systems and changes some metabolic functions. (PM10 is a combination of fine and coarse particulates).