Given the density of bushfire smoke across the country, the following provides a summary of the AIS evidence-based position statement and best practice guideline in relation to smoke pollution and exercise for clubs to consider in planning and conducting training sessions over the coming weeks to meet health and safety obligations. This includes an embedded link to obtain up to date Air Quality Index (AQI) readings.
Smoke Pollution and Exercise
Bushfire smoke can pose a health risk to athletes. The health impact of bushfire smoke can vary based on an individual’s current health status and previous medical conditions.
When pollution exposure is at low levels, the respiratory tract’s usual defense mechanisms trap, transport and clear pollutants effectively. With elevated exposure, short-term accumulation can occur resulting in inflammation and this can exacerbate several health conditions, with asthma being the most common in athletes. All athletes who suffer from asthma should have an updated asthma management plan and consult their doctor prior to exercising in smoke-affected environments. Recent respiratory infection also increases the risk for development of smoke-related symptoms, even in non-asthmatics.
During exercise, respiratory rate and volume increases, this in turn increases the total airway exposure to pollutants. In high performance athletes, moderate exercise can increase the total amount of air passing through the airway by more than 10 times and vigorous exercise by more the 20 times, compared to resting values. Even at moderately reduced air quality, this can represent a significant increase in pollutant exposure during a one-hour, high intensity training session.
Consecutive days of exposure to polluted air can have a cumulative effect, lowering an athlete’s threshold for symptoms. This should be considered if your region has been exposed to increased smoke for several days in succession.
In extreme conditions of poor air quality or extended/repeated exposure to poor air quality, athletes may exhibit the following symptoms:
- Irritation of the eyes, nose and throat
- Shortness of breath
- Coughing and sneezing
Air Quality Index (AQI)
The AQI is an accepted means of quantifying air quality by public health authorities encompassing:
- Air pollution levels at your nearest monitoring site or region
- The common contributing pollutants
- The overall health risk associated with a given rating
Air quality is measured for different pollutants, using different methods. Of the pollutants measured, PM2.5 (particulate matter less than 2.5 microns in diameter) is the biggest indicator of the quality of air.
Each state and territory has live online updates on current, local AQI levels (refer to link below). The AQI evaluates the current level of air quality with general advice on implications for individuals. For athletes performing extended higher intensity exercise the risk of airway irritation is higher at lower levels of pollution. Table 1 (below) is a suggested modification of the current NSW public health guidelines for high intensity outdoor training sessions or matches.
Air quality information is generally updated hourly, but sometimes there can be a significant lag between official measurements and what is occurring in real time (can be up to 12-18 hours). This can cause limitations when it comes to determining the air quality in your local environment. If smoke is affecting usual visibility within your area, it is likely that the air quality will fall into a higher risk category and the club should be responding to this perceived change.
Table 1. AQI and suggested risk stratification
The following link will be useful in helping you determine your region’s air quality: