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Air quality agony is the new reality



There wasn't much I could say about the children running around in circles in the library. Outside had an air quality index (AQI) reading of 400 or 'hazardous' (but who needs ratings when you can look outside and feel like you're suspended in a cloud?)

Smoke from bushfires covers Melbourne's Docklands precinct on 15 January 2020. (Photo by Robert Cianflone/Getty Images)Clearly the kids didn't care about the AQI, and since they were being very cute, it was hard to resent their noisy indoor antics. One said to the other, 'You come to my house so we can play together,' to which the other said, 'You come to my house so we can play together!' This went on for an interminable amount of time (by adult standards) until one ended the debate with, 'No, you come to my friend Susie's house so we can play together!' 

It was my first time at this library. I'd come to escape the heavy smoke which was permeating Melbourne and my old draughty apartment. Approaching the service desk upon arrival, I admit to looking deliberately pathetic in the hopes of avoiding a laborious sign-up process to access the wi-fi. I only wanted somewhere I could work safely, breathing in non-toxic air.

Earlier, when my partner kissed me goodbye as he left for work, I'd blurted out, 'Don't walk in this morning!'

'What?' he said, halfway to the door. 

'Don't walk. The air is bad.' I'd checked my air quality phone app while half asleep about 20 minutes prior (even my subconscious is obsessed with the AQI) and noted a new and effectively-alarming colour rating. 'I'll get the bus,' he said as he left. 

There had been a solid plan for my day. Being self-employed and at the tail end of a big project, there were still plenty of loose ends, and I wanted to get tying. Yet my mind was consumed by smoky air. The burnt orange colour coming through the windows, muddying what would have been a sunny summer morning. The crusty smell and gross taste coating my throat. The app telling me to 'wear a mask', 'stay indoors' and 'keep windows shut'.


"As I sat there negotiating their slow wi-fi, the place began to develop a smoke haze."


Our apartment is old. And not in a built in the '60s and hasn't been renovated for a while way, but in a Multiple wall vents in every room to avoid asphyxiation from fireplace smoke kind of way. It's an old 1920s art deco apartment, and aside from desperately needing new carpet and paint, it's still charming. But unfortunately, it is about as unsealed as you can get. It's not just the wall vents. It's the gaps in the doors and windows, and the draughty fireplace. It's impossible to heat in winter and tough to cool in the summer, but those are annoyances that don't typically pose a health threat.

In this horror bushfire season, living in a home so vulnerable to outside air conditions makes you realise what little control you have over this vast global ecosystem that's currently hurtling towards disaster. I am referring to the planet, although the statement stands just as true for the strained global ecosystem of humankind.

My day, previously filled with the promise of productivity and balance, had ended up being principally consumed with trying to find somewhere with air I could breathe, from whence I could Google air purifiers and DIY home improvements for draughty lodgings. 

So it was that I came to be sitting in this strange library with the kids running in circles. But as I sat there negotiating their slow wi-fi, the place began to develop a smoke haze. A second look at the ceiling, carpets and walls revealed a rather neglected building. According to all the articles on smoke pollution, this was not good and meant it was probably not keeping the smoke out.

I decided to resume my search for breathable air at Bunnings, thinking 'What possible household problem could not be solved there?' Driving there, I had a moment of rejoicing as I remembered the indoor car parking — no scurrying from car to air conditioned building! At times like these, you have to celebrate the small wins.

The joy was short-lived as I entered Bunnings to find it had its own smoke haze. Never mind. I steeled myself to get what I came for and leave. I had come up with a very DIY plan to cover our old wall vents to at least stem the supply of smoky air, and I'd hoped to workshop the idea with a Bunnings staff member. 

Despite it being the middle of a Tuesday, it was busy. Staff were helping customers or preoccupied with phone enquiries. As I walked past the front registers, there was a commotion nearby: a fresh delivery of smoke-filtering face masks had just arrived. I had read somewhere that stores had sold out of the masks state-wide and so, without thought, I made a beeline for the masks (along with a throng of people around me) and got hold of one. It felt a bit like winning the top consolation prize in what has become our new reality: a massive game of Climate Change Roulette. What a time to be alive. 

I stood looking at the mask, before having the crude thought that I could be assailed by some poor soul who missed out. Best to move on, but I had to decide my next move. Was the lengthy wait in smoky Bunnings to speak to an overrun staff member about my unorthodox and potentially-ineffectual air vent solution likely to harm my lungs more than the air vent issue itself? 

Proving that in desperate times we cling to compensatory measures no matter how irrational, I instinctively grabbed a small house plant nearby (on sale) and reminded myself that plants help to purify air. Now it was time to leave. 

Another Google while waiting to pay revealed that I would need roughly one plant per ten square meters to clean indoor air. I decided that doing the maths for my apartment, accounting for the unusually hazardous air in Melbourne, may have spoiled the relief of having acquired the mask and plant. So, I simply paid for my fern-cum-purifier and chose the comfort of ignorance. 

At this point, it seemed better. Better to be like the kids in the library — running in circles, oblivious to the very existence of an AQI.



Megan GrahamMegan Graham is a Melbourne based writer.

Main image: Smoke from bushfires covers Melbourne's Docklands precinct on 15 January 2020. (Photo by Robert Cianflone/Getty Images)

Topic tags: Megan Graham, climate change, pollution



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Existing comments

Well captured! Like many of us I had the nightmare realisation, driving up and down the Hume Highway on holidays, that things have changed for the worse. Smoke and gasping for breath may be the new normal.

Barry Gittins | 17 January 2020  

Megan, children quickly learn to cope with about anything. I recall living in Newman in the mid seventies and early in the morning as the traffic built up, you could see the black wisps of black tar drifting through the ground floor windows on Donovan wing. The policeman on point duty at Flinders street had to wear a mask even then. But yes, this year has been dire in respect of air quality when there is little wind or when its coming from the direction of the fires. Hopefully it will clear soon if we get some good downpours. Wall hanging gardens are another way to helo purify the air quality.

francis Armstrong | 17 January 2020  

All vey well for city slicker environmentalists that vote for politics that confound the way our people working the land live, then when disaster such as bush fires of extinction proportions happen, they winge about the smoke in the atmosphere of their big city residences without any consideration for the amount of smoke crews of fire fighters are exposed to putting them out!.

Consta Patience | 20 January 2020  

simple effective article identifying the changes humans will need to adapt to for survival, as a Library Technician and researcher I love spending time in a library as it brings joy to my soul, however as an'OK Female Boomer' recently made redundant now working for myself I use the library as a space to keep cool as I am worried for raising energy costs using heating or cooling facilities at home, this is not how I saw myself becoming.

Jane Davies | 25 January 2020  

Dear me .... we had major bushfires and the smoke drifted into city environs. I’m sitting outside today and the sky, the air, is as clear as could be ...... not certain what the point was to write about bushfire smoke that was never going to hang around for long .... rather be living here than (say) Shanghai thanks !

Jack | 25 January 2020  

A balanced essay Megan, Like your family, we have suffered from the smoke in Canberra for months. The panaceas suggested by some so called experts to this current crisis are simplistic. First, we are in serious drought and extreme temperatures have categorized this Summer. Second, No amount of controlled burns would have prevented this disaster, even if weather conditions during the cooler months had allowed them to be conducted . Several so called controlled burns actually got out of control, highlighting the serious situation Consta,I imagine, like many like minded, so called 'environmentalists', take exception to your labeling of anyone who dares to complain about the effects of this Summer's Armageddon . I come from a farming background. I have studied weather and climate for over half a century. What is happening at present is not normal. The evidence does point to inappropriate land management since white settlement, however the current crisis appears more related to Climate Change . Landholders will have to adapt to survive. Gavin A. O'Brien FRMetS

Gavin O'Brien | 27 January 2020  

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