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Why office airconditioning is important this bushfire season

By Jack Campbell | |5 minute read

The Australian climate is prone to bushfires. Hot, dry, and often in drought, these factors can all breed catastrophe. With fire comes smoke, which can be harmful. A recent study has shown that office airconditioning can help mitigate this risk.

Research from the University of Technology Sydney has revealed that air conditioning in our workplaces doesn’t just cool the air; it can also help trap particles from bushfire smoke and reduce our exposure to potentially harmful elements like soluble mercury, sulfate and nitrate.

Lead researcher Raissa Gill said this research is important for keeping people safe from the rollover effects of bushfires and pollution.


“The bushfires that raged across Australia during the 2019–2020 ‘Black Summer’ produced an enormous amount of air pollution, with plumes of smoke travelling long distances and cloaking Sydney and surrounding areas,” said Ms Gill.

“We wanted to find out more about what was in the bushfire smoke we were breathing. By using commercial air conditioning filters, we were able to capture and analyse the chemical composition of particles that would otherwise have been inhaled.”

The study was conducted during the Black Summer bushfires, and again one year later for comparison. The results revealed that the daily particulate matter concentrations were generally two to three times higher than normal, with hourly concentrations reaching up to 10.5 times the usual maximum.

“Bushfire aerosols contained much smaller, rounder particles than urban aerosols, making them more likely to be inhaled into our lungs and to transfer toxic elements into our bloodstream,” said co-author and UTS Professor Martina Doblin.

“These particles also contained more soluble forms of mercury, as well as higher concentrations of sulfate, nitrate and fluoride ions and metals, including manganese, cobalt, and antimony. Mercury is quite toxic even in low concentrations and can cause neurological problems and lung damage.”

The chemical risks produced by bushfires can be huge, prompting the need for adequate and bushfire-ready infrastructure in the workplace. Employers should ensure that buildings are fitted with proper filtration systems to help protect vulnerable workers.

“Australians face significant obstacles in achieving satisfactory air quality during major bushfire events. Many homes and older buildings rely on natural ventilation or have poor HVAC filtration efficiency and gaps that allow smoke to enter. These systems can also be costly and complicated to manage for effective protection during bushfires,” explained Ms Gill.

“Given that severe bushfires are projected to increase with climate change, the role of bushfire-ready infrastructure in maintaining public health, as well as the need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, is now more pressing than ever.”

Co-author and UTS Associate Professor Fraser Torpy concluded: “While air quality in Sydney is usually good by world standards, recent evidence has clearly shown that the handful of days that we get every year with high pollution loads from bushfires and dust storms lead to significant disease and death in the community.”

“Studies that build an understanding of these high-pollution events are critical in helping us determine what is causing these health crises and will lead towards a better understanding of how we can protect the vulnerable members of the community that suffer from them.”

Jack Campbell

Jack Campbell

Jack is the editor at HR Leader.