Waking up in Sydney to the smell of smoke this week reminded me of my time living in one of the world’s most polluted cities – Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia.
I lived in UB, as the locals call it, six years ago for a year as a Media Trainer as part of the Australian Volunteers for International Development program. In winter, when temperatures often dip to -40ºC, residents who live in traditional ger tents on the city’s outskirts would burn coal to stay warm. Yes, it’s really cold. Sometimes my eyelashes would freeze on the way to work.
Burning coal is a matter of life or death in this type of weather. But it also fills the air with a toxic smog so thick you couldn’t see the buildings across the road, let alone anything into the distance.
In Mongolia, checking the PM2.5 pollution reading for the day was as normal as checking the weather. PM2.5 is fine particulate matter (PM) – it’s toxic and gets deep into the lungs and the bloodstream. Long exposure to this type of toxicity is bad for all of us but particularly older people, young children, pregnant women and people with respiratory and cardiac issues. One way to help ease the effects on your body is to wear a special mask with a filter when you are outside.
On high pollution days, if I didn’t wear my mask I would definitely feel headachy for no reason. I would wake up with a cough and I was snotty – really snotty. The smoke would permeate my clothes and my hair – it was like being in an early 2000s nightclub pre smoking ban. I also had an air purifier in my bedroom and would escape to the countryside on the weekends to give my lungs a break and breathe in that fresh mountain air.
In the last few weeks, waking up in Sydney has been reminiscent of my time in UB. Smelling smoke in my bedroom, driving across the Harbour Bridge unable to see Sydney’s iconic Opera House sails in the distance made me very nostalgic – for all the wrong reasons. I noticed I was coughing but I wasn’t sick, I had an itchy nose but no hayfever. Was it a coincidence three out of my 10 colleagues were sick last week with sore throats and bad coughs?
On a particularly smoky day, when one of my colleagues arrived to work by bike, which lots of Sydney people do, I was compelled to tell them about how dangerous the air was and how if it was this smoky in UB I would have been wearing a mask. But something in me held back — the part that worried if I would come across as overreacting.
The truth is, the polluted air and its effects are something we actually need to consider. Even getting used to checking the PM2.5 reading and seeing what it is in your area might be an unfortunate habit we have to start because this is the kind of smoke that can literally kill people with existing respiratory and cardiac issues.
Smog and haze aren’t usually associated with one of the most beautiful cities in the world – with its glistening harbour, sandy beaches and iconic views – surely we can’t be experiencing some of the pollution levels you would usually associate with places like Beijing or Jakarta? But we did. Last week, we were actually living in the world’s most polluted cities. And that is frightening.
On Friday, November 22 the PM2.5 readings were above 300 in most Sydney suburbs and even recorded PM2.5 of 628 in Sydney’s northwest – definitely a mask-wearing level of pollution. At these levels you should avoid going outside. It’s definitely not the kind of air you want to exercise in.
The same day, and subsequent smoky days, I saw Sydneysiders go about their normal lives doing group bootcamps in the park, sucking in the toxic air whilst completing rounds of burpees and pushups, cycling, running to work, sitting outside sipping coffee and reading about the bushfires, seemingly blissfully unaware of the toxic air entering their bodies.
Most of us are probably thinking “Oh, this is a one-time weather event and it won’t affect me and the smoke will blow over.” And it has. For now.
Unlike residents in UB, we’re not burning coal to stay warm and alive during extremely cold winters, we’re dealing with the effects of a long drought, an early bushfire season, climate change and wild weather events. Two starkly different situations with the same end result – toxic air.
In Sydney, we don’t experience the consistently high levels of pollution I did when living in UB, however, it does make me wonder if we should be taking the PM2.5 levels more seriously.
I have almost bought a mask. I’ve looked at them online but I’ve also been hesitant and thought, “Am I going to look like an idiot walking around with a mask on?”. And maybe I’m privileged in thinking that this won’t happen again and that it will all be fine. But I fear this isn’t the last spate of bushfires we’ll experience this summer. It’s technically not even summer yet.
So next time Sydney is shrouded in haze, look out for me, I’ll be the one wearing a mask.
Lizzy Hoo is a Sydney-based stand-up comedian, writer and actor. She hails from Brisbane and is made from local and imported ingredients.
This article was edited by Candice Chung, and is part of a series by SBS Voices supporting the work of emerging young Asian-Australian writers. Want to be involved? Get in touch with Candice on Twitter @candicechung_