As Australia braces for a fierce bushfire season due to the El Niño weather system, new guidelines have been issued for elite sport to minimise the health risk of smoke haze on athletes.
This year’s Australian Institute of Sport (AIS) recommendations set out the levels of smoke pollution that are acceptable before they pose a risk to athletes’ health. They build on efforts in the Black Summer of 2019-20 when the AIS rushed to respond to a need from sports for advice amid a blanket of haze in much of eastern Australia.
Climate and fire experts have warned Australians face an increased of risk of bushfires this year, with the Australasian Fire Authorities Council issuing a stark outlook for spring across much of eastern Australia.
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David Hughes, chief medical offer at the AIS, said elite athletes face higher health risks from smoke than the wider population because they are likely to spend more time exercising outdoors, and there is a higher prevalence of asthma among them. Smoke inhalation has been found in some cases to cause lung injury, impaired blood flow and eye, nose and throat irritation.
“Recreational athletes will often just pick and choose whether to exercise or not depending on how comfortable they’re feeling, while that’s not always the case in high performance sport where there might be an expectation that you continue to train hard and compete hard,” Dr Hughes said.
Individual sports have also revisited their policies ahead of the coming summer. Tennis Australia is currently updating the smoke policy for the 2024 Australian Open, the A-Leagues reviewed theirs before the start of the season, and Cricket Australia (CA) has refined community guidelines which factor in air quality, signs of distress suffered by players and officials, and visibility.
CA doesn’t publish its policy for elite cricket but confirmed it is largely consistent with the community guidelines. A spokesperson said: “The guidelines put a strong emphasis on player welfare and urge clubs to take a conservative approach when deciding if it is safe to play or train in bushfire smoke or other hazardous conditions.”
The AIS guidelines expand on its initial smoke publication released in 2019-20, during which sporting events across football, cricket and tennis were abandoned, postponed and relocated.
“I can remember sitting in a hotel in Sydney in a conference when the bushfires happened and suddenly there were calls coming in from all over Australia with people wanting guidance,” Dr Hughes said. “We really didn’t have something to point them to for exercising in conditions that are affected by bushfire.”
Since then Hughes and his team have drawn together literature and investigated how different components in bushfire smoke can impair physical performance.
The major change in this year’s release is a shift away from broad Air Quality Index (AQI) data to the use of more specific PM2.5 measurements (small particles in the air).
“What we know and what we observed during those 2019 bushfires is that there can be very significant changes in the PM2.5 concentration in the atmosphere over time, literally within minutes,” Dr Hughes said.
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He urged administrators, high-performance staff, coaches and even athletes to invest in hand-held devices that can give immediate readings on the amount of smoke pollution in the air.
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According to the new guidelines, PM2.5 values above 150 should prompt a discussion around whether events to be rescheduled. Vulnerable individuals undertaking prolonged, high-intensity exercise such as cyclists should shift training inside if readings climb above 50. PM2.5 readings around Toowoomba have climbed into this range last week due to fires.
But Dr Hughes said assessments on whether to continue sport must be made using the individual susceptibility of the athlete – for example their level of aerobic activity or whether they have asthma – and the type of sport they’re playing.
“In cricket, for instance, the fast bowler’s working hard,” he said. “And where we saw people break down, it was almost always the fast bowler who had difficulty breathing during those heavy bushfire times.”