Bushfire smoke and young children: what to do

The devastating result of the bushfires has left many early childhood services across Australia experiencing hazardous air pollution levels in the last couple of months. As smoke continues to blanket much of the country, we reached out to a number of departments and other services to put together a list of helpful links and resources for educators to utilise and implement during this time.

What’s the government doing?

The federal government has said it will work with the education sector to keep early learning providers up-to-date on what to do in a bushfire and to provide them resources on air quality and managing the impact of smoke. The government will also commission additional research to further understand the long-term effects of prolonged exposure to bushfire smoke.

Prolonged exposure to smoke

Experts warn that young children particularly are at a higher risk of experiencing respiratory problems caused by exposure to dense smoke. The smoke from the bushfires contains fine particles—known as PM2.5—which are toxic to the human body. Once inhaled, these tiny pollutants can get transferred from the respiratory system to the bloodstream. This can decrease the amount of antioxidants in the body and result in respiratory inflammation, which may increase the risk of allergies and asthma flaring up for young children. It is important to remember that a child may not have previously displayed symptoms of allergies or asthma.

Department of Health Acting Chief Medical Officer, Professor Paul Kelly said PM2.5 levels can change from hour to hour and day to day. He emphasised that it is important to be aware of the conditions outside and monitor the air quality forecasts to determine the best times to go outdoors.

Air quality monitoring

During these periods of smoke coming and going, the ACT Health Directorate has advised early childhood centres to monitor the changing conditions and the quality of the air. To check air quality in your area, please click here.

Smoky air (PM2.5) health advisory categories

Health measures in practice

Some large providers have been monitoring conditions and keeping their centres up to date with information and advice. Some smoke-affected centres in Victoria, NSW and the ACT have also arranged for air purifiers and P2 masks (masks are usually only suitable for staff, not children).

When the air quality is unhealthy or hazardous, services need to make a decision to either close the centres or keep operating, but they must take steps to minimise exposure of children and staff to smoke. Following are some measures that may be taken:

  • Stay indoors and keep windows and doors closed to slow the rate of penetration of smoke.
  • Avoid outdoor activities and strenuous activity—this is especially relevant for those who have respiratory conditions.
  • If you have an older air conditioner, switch its airflow to ‘recycle’ or ‘recirculate’ to restrict the smoke from coming inside the centre.
  • On days when the smoke clears, take the opportunity to open windows and air out the rooms to improve indoor air quality.

Children and parents may feel anxious about the smoke and the impact it is having on their own health as well as the health of other people and animals. Smelling smoke can also trigger children’s thought processes that danger is nearby.  There is a useful fact sheet on supporting children after natural disasters from Be You and a more comprehensive toolkit produced by Emerging Minds.  In summary, some steps you can take include:

  • Provide safe opportunities for children to talk about their concerns or experiences, following the children’s lead to avoid triggering concerns in children who are not apprehensive
  • Listen and respond to children when they appear anxious or want to talk about the bushfires or the smoke
  • If the main concern is smoke, rather than a risk of fire, we need to take time to reassure the children – particularly if they have experienced trauma and loss through fires (or fear through watching fires on the news)Tell children and parents about the steps you are taking to monitor the air quality and minimise the impact of smoke to keep children safe
  • For very young children who may not be able to verbalise their concerns we need to take note of other evidence of anxiety, or physiological responses to smoke (including breathing issues or irritation of the eyes, nose and throat) and respond appropriately
  • checking-in regularly with parents and children who are worried about the smoke
  • answering questions honestly and sharing what information you have
  • encouraging children to be kind to one another as well as hopeful and optimistic about the future
  • providing information about counselling services that families can access if they feel they might benefit from more support.

It is also important to look after yourself, other educators and staff. Encourage staff to talk openly about the impact of the bushfires and smoke, and to share their concerns. Follow up with anyone who you think is particularly distressed or anxious and provide them contact details for support services that may be useful to them—including Employee Assistance Programs or local counselling services.

Useful links

Educators can access the below links for information and regular updates on air quality for each state and territory.

For information on minimising the health impacts of outdoor smoke, refer to the ACT Health Directorate factsheet. For further information about dealing with smoke and hazardous conditions in your area, please click on the link for your state:

Early childhood centres or educators affected by smoke, haze or hot conditions can also contact their relevant state workplace health and safety authority for information about health and safety in the workplace:

Additional reading


 

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Early Childhood Australia

Early Childhood Australia (ECA) has been a voice for young children since 1938. We are the peak early childhood advocacy organisation, acting in the interests of young children, their families and those in the early childhood field. ECA advocates to ensure quality, social justice and equity in all issues relating to the education and care of children aged birth to eight years.

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