Australians Left on Their Own to Ward off Toxic Smoke


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“The first two weeks of 2020 have been a pendulum swing between fighting and fleeing from smoke, and a near-perfect likeness of the idyllic life we had before fire season,” wrote Eric Byler in the Intercept. At the time, Australia had been up in flames for nearly an entire month. This first-person story touches on the air quality issues that Australians were left to battle alone. The “fog of death”  caused the Canberra writer to resort to a DIY air-filtration technique of hanging wet towels over fans to try and help with the air pollution in Byler’s house. The family was told by their landlord that “When [the smoke] is thick like that, those fine particles find a way in no matter what.” The air was so bad that Baylor and his partner  had to take shelter in a hotel one night to escape the smoke.

Meanwhile, the Department of Home Affairs in Australia told its staff to stay home due to the polluted air even though the air at home was not much better. The particles in the air were odorless but highly dangerous — containing toxins linked to respiratory ailments, cancer and heart disease — and especially harmful to children and the elderly. An elderly woman died of respiratory distress after breathing the smoke on the tarmac at the Canberra airport, and an asthmatic teenager died when Glenn Innes, New South Wales was inundated with smoke, Byler wrote. Canberra’s stores were out of air purifiers. Baylor and his family returned home and ordered an air purifier online that, once it was up and running, warned the family that their house’s air quality was “poor”. Eventually, the air purifier the Bylers installed moved the quality from “poor” to “very good”.

It has been 17 years since fires last engulfed Australia, and this past year more than 150 bushfires were burning. The fires were heavily reported in the establishment press—including reports by the New York Times, Washington Post, and Reuters—but the way people were exposed to toxins without directions and safeguards from government authorities has been left out of mainstream media coverage.

Source: Eric Byler, “The Search for Clean Air Amid Australia’s Smoky Fires,” The Intercept, January 15, 2020, https://theintercept.com/2020/01/15/australia-fires-air-quality/.

Student Researcher: Kaitlyn Schropp (University of Regina)

Faculty Evaluator: Suliman Adam (University of Regina)

Review Article with Credder

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