Air pollution in the Illawarra has been up to 27 times worse than normal over the past few days due to the thick haze of bushfire smoke clouding the region.
The air-quality monitor readings, classed as ‘‘hazardous’’ by the NSW Office of Environment and Heritage (OEH), have led doctors and the state health department to urge residents to limit heavy exercise and stay indoors where possible.
According to figures from the OEH website, the daily Air Quality Index at the Wollongong monitor reached 1341 on Saturday, compared with typical readings of about 50.
Anything over 100 is considered ‘‘poor’’ air quality and figures above 200 are classed as a ‘‘hazardous’’.
On Sunday, the Albion Park index reached 297 while yesterday’s hourly figures peaked at 431 in Wollongong.
But these readings were nothing compared to what residents of the Southern Highlands town of Bargo were experiencing, with readings of more than 4000 recorded over the weekend.
Once an area’s air-quality index tops 200, the OEH issues an alert that recommends ‘‘people with heart or lung disease, older adults, and children should avoid exercising outdoors’’.
It also says prolonged or heavy exertion should be avoided by all.
The Australian Medical Association’s NSW president, Brian Owler, yesterday said heavy exercise should be avoided while pollution levels remained high and recommended asthmatics carry their puffers with them at all times.
According to Savvy Fitness owner Angela Saville, the Wollongong outdoor exercise company had to move some of its classes due to the poor air quality.
Similarly, at Big Fat Smile preschools, staff were taking ‘‘all necessary precautions’’ to protect children with asthma and other respiratory conditions.
‘‘There is no reported increase in symptoms for susceptible children, but staff remain vigilant,’’ a spokeswoman said.
Big Fat Smile centres in Wilton and Bingara Gorge, closest to the fire grounds, were closed yesterday.
Also of concern as the bushfire emergency continues are the high amounts of tiny particles, which can enter people’s lungs and the cardiovascular system.
On Saturday, Wollongong’s PM 2.5 levels, which refer to particles measuring just 2.5millionths of a metre, were the highest in the state over 24 hours.
They reached 354 on Saturday and had reached 198 late yesterday afternoon.
When PM 2.5 levels reach over 200, the OEH website directs all residents to stay inside where possible.
Professor Wayne Smith from NSW Health’s environmental health branch yesterday said bushfires could result in a large amount of smoke particles in the air, even hundreds of kilometres from the fires.
‘‘Fine particles can irritate the lungs of healthy adults, so it is best to avoid any prolonged outdoor exercise,’’ he said. ‘‘The best way to avoid breathing in the smoke is to remain inside with the windows and doors closed, preferably in an airconditioned building.’’
An Ambulance NSW spokesman said there had been a marked increase in the number of callouts to people with respiratory problems since the fires broke out on Thursday.
However, Wollongong Hospital Emergency Department said there had been no spike in respiratory patients over the past few days.