Our daughter was seven years old. One winter her asthma had been getting worse. The air in our inner suburb was heavily polluted with smoke from local wood heaters. Like many people we were unaware wood smoke was harmful. Wood heaters/stoves are the single largest source of human made air pollution in our country yet inexplicably so often overlooked as a source of air pollution. From the age of six months our daughter had ongoing respiratory related illnesses -bronchiolitis, coughs, multiple operations for ear infections, adenoids and tonsils. Meanwhile ongoing levels of wood smoke in our neighbourhood. Her wheeze had been getting worst and she was not improving with medications prescribed by our GP. We took her to hospital and within 10 minutes of being admitted I was pushed out of the room as multiple medical staff rushed in to save her life. She survived just - but it was terrifying ordeal for her, us and the staff. Later one of the doctors asked if we had a smoker at home. Since then we have researched wood smoke and purchased numerous air filters. Wood heaters are hugely popular so they are everywhere - we can’t move to an area without them. Governments everywhere need to phase out this unnecessary and seriously harmful form of home heating.
Canberra started 2020 with the worst air quality in the world. The air we were breathing was hazardous; well above dangerous levels. We evacuated from the terrifying bushfires at the coast, returning home to Canberra where our six year-old had to get ash out of her eye and we cleaned ash from our newborn’s ears. That night we masking-taped all the windows, putting up wet towels and sheets to block the doors and seal the house. The smoke still seeped in. Our daughter’s room was so smoky we couldn’t let her sleep there. My partner made an air purifier from a fan and vacuum cleaner filters because purifiers had sold out in Canberra. We bought plants that purify the air. We looked at our newborn and six year-old as we tried to ignore that it was still so smoky. It was 1am and we were checking the Fires Near Me and Air Quality data apps. It was hard not to think about the impact it would have on their tiny lungs. We were quarantined in a smoke-filled house. Face masks weren’t advised for under-12s given the impact on lung function, not that we could get them anyway, as it was too dangerous for posties to work. Nowhere felt safe. Schools were advised to make judgements on the air quality based on what they could see and smell – and still let children out and held assemblies outside, when you could see and smell smoke.
My pre-bed and early morning routine was obsessively checking the latest alerts on Emergency Services ACT social media and Air Quality data. At our lowest point, when we couldn’t stop the smoke coming in, we travelled to Sydney where the air quality was just ‘dangerous’ and not ‘hazardous’, and to breathe that air was sweet. We were lucky to have that choice, we could stay with friends and we could afford to buy an expensive air purifier that we know many Canberrans could not. We still wonder what damage did the smoke do our children’s lungs? We can see in our now eight year-old’s extreme anxiety around fires that the bushfires had a profound impact. We’ll never know about the damage we can’t see and when the next bush fires will fill Canberra with smoke.