Bushfire smoke is like billions of cigarettes, says UOW academic

The North Coast bushfires have already put the pollution equivalent of more than 50 billion cigarettes into the air, according to a university academic.

Dr Owen Price is a Senior Research Fellow with University of Wollongong's Centre for Environmental Risk Management of Bushfires.

He is studying the potential health impacts of bushfire smoke.

He said some people might be so focused on the fire threat that they overlooked the dangers from smoke - especially on days like Thursday where it blanketed the Illawarra despite no major fires being nearby.

So Dr Price did some calculating of the particulate pollution coming from the North Coast bushfire smoke and compared it to something people might find more familiar - cigarettes.

"Last week, when we got to a million hectares of burning, that was about the equivalent of 51 billion cigarettes," Dr Price said.

"They've done research to work out exactly how many particulates come out of each hectare of burnt forest and they've also done research on cigarette smoking, there's about 5mg of particulates in each cigarette.

"So we're actually quite lucky that most of it did blow out over the sea."

Health risk: University of Wollongong Senior Research Fellow Dr Owen Price has compared the level of bushfire smoke to the pollutants emitted from cigarettes. Picture: Paul Jones

Health risk: University of Wollongong Senior Research Fellow Dr Owen Price has compared the level of bushfire smoke to the pollutants emitted from cigarettes. Picture: Paul Jones

Dr Price said bushfire smoke can kill people, citing a 2016 hazard reduction burn that - based on levels recorded by pollution monitors - "probably killed 12 to 14 people".

"There's a growing realisation, certainly in the research community, over the last decade or so, that smoke probably has the bigger impact in total," Dr Price said.

"Fire management authorities are starting to take notice of that now."

Dr Price is researching the health risks posed the smoke emitted from proscribed hazard reduction burns, compared to bushfires.

"We know that proscribed fires produce smoke as well but no one's thought about that question, that they're actually putting smoke into the atmosphere," he said.

"My research is trying to compare the two. If we were to increase the amount of proscribed burning we were doing, would that make the overall smoke levels better or worse?

"While you are putting some smoke in, you're also reducing smoke because you're going to reduce the area of bushfire."

Hazard reduction burns are generally undertaken on days where there is little or no wind so as to reduce the risk of the fire spreading.

While the lack of wind means the smoke doesn't spread to wider areas, it could cause problems for those towns nearby.

"When there's less wind that means the local effects could be greater because the smoke just hangs around," Dr Price said.