In winter, a walk around the block can become an exercise in fear
Living with severe asthma is a major challenge. Since I was a child it has affected many aspects of my life. This includes, for example, working out which friends I can visit based on what kinds of pets they have – goldfish are fine but cats are completely out! It also affects when and where I can go on holiday. If I ended up in a new city during a major burn-off, it could be quite dangerous.
These days I am fortunate enough to live in a pleasant suburb in bayside Melbourne. For much of the time my asthma is OK, although I need to be especially careful during spring because it’s hayfever season. More recently, the terrible summer bushfires we’ve had in Victoria have meant the air quality was so bad I was unable to leave the house for many days.
Living with severe asthma is a major challenge.Credit:Tribune
To keep myself safe from these kinds of issues at home, we have double-glazed windows and two air purifiers. We’ve also sealed up the gaps under the external doors and around windows. I accept the fact that the weather and seasons present extra risks.
Unfortunately, there is one additional seasonal challenge I have to deal with – smoke from woodfire heaters. Every winter a small number of neighbours warm their homes by burning wood. This is a leafy inner-city suburb so this kind of heating is not driven by financial needs (unlike the situation say in rural parts of Victoria, where it might make more sense to have a wood fire.) I’m sure it is much more about the aesthetic pleasure of having a glowing fire inside people’s homes.
The problem is that the smoke from these wood heaters is extremely bad for asthmatics such as myself. The fine particles can get very deep into your throat and lungs and often trigger a major asthma attack. Once or twice I’ve had serious enough issues from wood smoke near home that I have nearly called for an ambulance.
There have been times when I have been on a walk and I turn the corner and the street is filled with smoke. I suddenly feel severe shortness of breath, as though I am suffocating. I feel panicked and afraid with no escape. My heart rate rises, I start to wheeze. I quickly take my puffer and then I hope that I am able to get home or “be rescued” – as we call it when I have to ring my husband to pick me up urgently.
Wood heaters can cause issues for asthma sufferers.Credit:Chris Hopkins
The other issue is the smoke is very localised. Before I go out in the winter, I check several apps on my phone to check the air quality. Often the apps will show “good” or “very good” air quality in my suburb, which is no doubt true near the measuring station. However, the air quality can be terrible within a few houses of anyone using a wood heater.
Wood heaters have already been banned in several locations overseas and even a few councils in Australia, including parts of the ACT.
With help from others, I have been lobbying my local Glen Eira council and I’m pleased to say they are taking decisive action in asking residents not to use their wood heaters if possible. It’s already made some difference over the last couple of weeks.
I understand how nice it must be to relax around a warm log fire at home. However, this is not just about me. Like all suburbs, in our street there are families with small babies, or elderly people, or those with lung conditions and heart conditions. There are doubtless others who cannot understand why they are struggling to breathe at night.
This is an issue which affects everyone. In the 1970s we started to realise how cigarette smoking leads to cancer. Sometime soon, we will come to a similar realisation regarding wood fire smoke. It is exactly the same in terms of risk.
I realise that banning wood heaters immediately is not a realistic option. However, I’d really like to see them phased out over time, especially in urban and built-up areas. To speed up this process, the Victorian government could offer more incentives for existing owners to replace them with something more environmentally friendly. In the long term, we’ll look back and wonder why we ever put up with them.
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