Australian Fires: Smoke poisons city air

By a Socialist Action (CWI Australia) member in Melbourne

I woke up on Monday with a headache and after a few moments I realised I could taste the bushfire smoke, in the air, in my bedroom. Yuck. I couldn’t escape, it was in my house!

People all over Melbourne, a sprawling city of nearly 5 million people, reported the smoke seeped into their homes and workplaces. It got into everything. All my sheets, towels and clothes stink of it.

Newspapers say 30% of Australia’s population of 25 million have been affected by the toxic bushfire smoke this season. It’s truly unprecedented, it’s never been like this in a past fire season.

I went outside and I couldn’t see the sun, or the sky, or very far into the distance. On a normal clear summer’s day visibility stretches for kilometers. But the smoke haze reduced it to a few hundred meters. Cars drove around with headlights on during the middle of the day.

I didn’t see blue sky or the sun again until Wednesday.

I visited Shanghai once and I was shocked about the dull grey-brown haze that blotted out the sky and shrouded the buildings. It was suddenly very similar here.

I have a much more real understanding of the situation facing ordinary people in badly polluted cities like Beijing or Mumbai now, and I have extreme sympathy.

I was worried about my health going to work. I had to do a lot of work outside, walking and climbing. Would I be able to breathe properly? Would I get sick, or worsen the risk of chronic diseases in the future?

The Environment Protection Authority website said the air quality was “Very Poor”, the second worst category before “Hazardous”. But the advice on the website was very general and unclear.

In the days afterwards there were more news articles reporting on the health effects. Heightened risk of alzheimers and dementia are linked to smoke. Every part of the body is affected said another expert. But we don’t really know the full future effects of this exposure.

The immediate effects on people can last for days after the smoke has passed. On Tuesday my throat and sinuses ached and I coughed a lot.

Ambulance service spokespeople reported a spike of people needing help for breathing problems, 51% more than normal on Monday and up one third on Tuesday afternoon.

When I got to work there was a letter from a top ‘Health and safety’ boss advising us that there was no need to wear special “P2” or “N95” smoke masks while working outdoors. They told us they were monitoring conditions and if we felt sick simply to speak to our manager and seek medical advice. Carry on as usual they said.

My health and safety representative was reluctant to offer any advice beyond seeking treatment and medical advice if I had breathing difficulties. Our union officials weren’t keen to show any leadership either, even though workers have the legal right to stop work if conditions are unsafe.

At work my throat dried out and became itchy. I felt a stinging in my eyes. The air felt dirty and acidic in my lunges. I couldn’t get the sticky dusty feeling off my skin, even when I washed my hands. I could feel it in my hair as well.

One of my coworkers told me about their experience. They said just climbing the stairs from the carpark left them gasping for air. Another coworker still had a croaky voice on Thursday.

In Canberra, the national capital, the air quality has been the worst in the world for days. Many government offices are closed. In Sydney last month some groups of workers took stop work action to protect themselves. Canberra, Sydney and Brisbane, have suffered many more days of thick smoke than Melbourne has yet.

And these occurrences are set to become much more frequent and intense as global warming fuels much bigger, more frequent and more intense bushfires. Working class people are left asking many questions about their health and their working and living conditions.

Since Monday my bosses have conceded that they will provide smoke respirator masks for use when the air quality is rated as ‘Hazardous’. But that’s still not enough. When air quality is ‘poor’ or ‘very poor’ there is still a significant risk and the EPA recommends avoiding being outside.

Moreover the respirator masks only protect against dust and fine particles in the smoke. They can’t filter out the increased poison gases like carbon monoxide. It’s simply unsafe to be working outside at all in those conditions.

Even inside the smoke is getting in through windows, doors and air conditioning. We need special filters on the air conditioning. Some university workers in Sydney have forced their bosses to buy portable filters.

There is a huge opportunity for trade union leaders to make use of health and safety laws to call massive city-wide stop work action. They could demand and quickly win measures to protect workers from the smoke risk and put enormous pressure on the Government over fire service funding and global warming policy.

But the current batch of trade union leaders have shown no appetite for such action. In my union they have deflected the pressure back onto individual and local health and safety representatives to deal with things.

It’s a strong example of the desperate need to transform politics of the union movement and replace the current leaders. They are more interested in maintaining peace with the bosses and getting into parliament in the future than our health and safety.

When I came home from work I was desperate for a shower. I wanted to get the fine dust and grit off my skin. I could feel it coating me. I hoped that the steam and the water would clean the air in the shower and I could get a brief reprieve. When I brushed my teeth the water and toothpaste came back dark.

Some recent global warming cartoons show people ‘in the future’ walking around cities in space-suites, with fish-bowls on their heads because the air is poisoned. That doesn’t seem so strange or far away to me anymore. The effects of global warming are arriving and the dire need to replace the capitalist system that causes it grows daily.