- The Australian Open is getting underway in Melbourne, as a record-breaking season of Australian bush fires rages on.
- The air quality in Melbourne last week was cited as the worst in the world, but conditions have been improving steadily since then.
- Swiss tennis star Roger Federer said he doesn’t “worry too much” about the smoke, but one player collapsed in a coughing fit during qualifiers last week, and other players said they have been using asthma medication to get through matches.
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The Australian Open is getting underway in Melbourne this week, and tennis players have some mixed feelings about running around (and breathing in) the thick, smoggy air wafting their way from the bushfires that have been raging through the country since September.
“I don’t worry too much, to be honest,” Roger Federer said during a press conference ahead of the tournament. “I worry more for everybody else who’s in the fire, in the smoke, because also we can stay indoors all day and quickly go out and play, and go back inside again.”
Defending champion Novak Djokovic felt differently about the smoke.
“To be honest I was a little bit concerned,” he said, pointing to the time last Tuesday when Melbourne’s air quality was the worst in the world. That was when Dalila Jakupovic of Slovenia had to be shuttled off the court during a qualifying match after she suffered a coughing fit.
“It was sad to see some players collapsing and ball kids collapsing on the court,” Djokovic said.
Player Liam Broady also told the AFP that “multiple” other players needed to use asthma medication to get through the day.
Of course, tennis players aren’t the only ones who’ve been having a hard time breathing lately in Australia. It’s gotten to the point that people are looking up daily air quality ratings on their phones during morning commutes, referencing them like a weather report, Josh Taylor reported in The Guardian.
“I’m a smoker anyway, but you wake up feeling like your chest has been stomped on, coughing up crap all the time,” volunteer firefighter Greg Hodges told Taylor.
Much of what people are checking on their phones is tied to the number of PM 2.5 particles wafting in the smoke-filled air of Australia right now.
PM 2.5 is the measure of how many teeny tiny pieces of smoke, and all other very, very small emissions particles are floating around in the air. PM 2.5 particles are smaller than 2.5 microns wide — that’s 30 times skinnier than a strand of human hair. Because the particles are so small, they can easily travel into the lungs and the bloodstream, and cause breathing issues and other long-term damage.
If the air gets smoggier in Melbourne, outdoor games will be suspended
The Australian Open has set a threshold of 200 micrograms per cubic meter for PM 2.5. If air quality gets worse than that during the tournament, they’ll suspend play outdoors. If the air is slightly cleaner, between 97 and 200 micrograms, suspending play will be at the discretion of each match referee.
But many athletes were frustrated that the Open didn’t communicate about its air quality plan sooner, leaving players outside on Tuesday and Wednesday of last week, when the air was so bad that the Australian Environment Protection Authority (EPA) in Victoria was advising all Melburnians to “stay indoors, keep windows and doors shut, and keep pets inside.”
Dr. Kate Charlesworth, a public health physician in Sydney told the New York Times that she thought the smoke probably wouldn’t be a huge issue for most players, but she didn’t rule out the idea that it would never cause problems.
“For elite athletes, if it’s only for a couple of days, it’s not such a big issue,” she said. “But for someone with asthma, it could be a very different story.”
It’s tough to know exactly what effect a few days of breathing smoky air might have on people, but when the air is more consistently hazy, breathing it in can have dangerous, long-term effects on the brain. Heavy exposure over time can lead to reduced lung function and even death.
Researchers at Berkeley have estimated that the health effects of being outside on a really poor air quality day is like the equivalent of smoking 60 cigarettes that day.
Historically, that level of air pollution hasn’t been something Aussies have had to worry about. In fact, the Environmental Performance Index, a metric from environmental scientists at Yale and Columbia that ranks 180 countries around the world, put the country in first place when it comes to overall air quality.
According to the EPA, the air quality in the city of Melbourne on Monday as the Open got underway was back to “good.”