100,000 masks arrive in Canberra as ACT Health warns they are not 100 per cent effective

Dominic Giannini 6 January 2020 22

The ACT had the worst air quality of any major urban centre in the world on Sunday, 5 January. Photo: Region Media.

The Federal Government has released 100,000 P2 masks from the Commonwealth National Stockpile after Chief Minister Andrew Barr accepted their offer following a shortage in the ACT.

The masks were set to arrive this morning (6 January) from Sydney. Priority will be given to vulnerable people, including people with underlying heart or lung disease, people over 65, the homeless, and pregnant women.

Mr Barr said the government is doing as much as they can to ensure the safety of Canberrans, but the situation is unprecedented and remains terrible.

“We know many Canberrans are still seeking P2 masks to help minimise their smoke exposure”, he said.

“The ACT government has accepted an offer form the Commonwealth government. I spoke to Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt yesterday [Saturday, 4 January], for access to the large stock of Commonwealth masks.

“These will be made available to vulnerable people in our community, such as those who are particularly sensitive to smoky conditions and those who are unable to avoid prolonged outdoor exposure.

“We are working with peak bodies and organisations to find the best way to provide these masks to vulnerable Canberrans, with appropriate health advice about how to safely use these masks.”


The ACT Health Directorate is partnering with the Pharmacy Guild of Australia and the Pharmaceutical Society of Australia to make these masks available through community pharmacies in Canberra by tomorrow morning [Tuesday, 7 January], Mr Barr said.

“There are more than 80 community pharmacies across our city but the supply of masks is expressly being made available to people in our community who are most at risk.”

The ACT Government is also working to distribute masks to homeless people across the Territory.

Mr Barr said that masks had been distributed through the Early Morning Centre and via a concerted effort across the Community Services Directorate in partnership with Housing ACT and other non-government providers.

“It is important to note that it is not just about providing a mask, once. This needs to be more sophisticated, and there is a lot of great grassroots support and community organisations who have been doing a great job in helping the Government”, he said.

However, both the Chief Minister and the Chief Health Officer, Dr Kerryn Coleman, stressed that the masks are not 100 per cent effective. The best way to minimise smoke inhalation is to remain indoors.

“There is a concern with these masks that I want everyone to be aware of. They are not 100 per cent effective, and are not an alternative to minimising your smoke from other mechanisms,” Dr Coleman said.

“Your first thing to do is to remain indoors and minimise your smoke inhalation. If you cannot do that, and you need to go outside, then the mask is an option.

“However, they are not easy to wear, they can be quite hot and they can make you claustrophobic, so you can imagine that if you are unwell for other reasons, that can make you quite uncomfortable.

“We are encouraging people who have other conditions to go and talk to their doctors and medical physicians to understand whether a mask would be of benefit to them or whether it would make them feel a little bit worse.”

Dr Coleman also said that eye drops and throat lozenges may help reduce the effects of prolonged exposure to the smoke.

Masks are not effective unless they are fitted correctly, and ACTWell First Aid Training Canberra has said that P2 masks or N95 masks are not suitable for kids under the age of 14 years.

“Please do not try to modify them to fit little people’s faces. They are already very difficult to fit and use appropriately,” they say in a statement on Facebook.

“Putting these masks on young children can lead to suffocation and reduced oxygen intake, which is far worse than the danger of inhaling the smoke currently in Canberra.

“The lungs of littlies simply do not have the strength needed in their inspiratory flow to draw enough air through the mask.”

Directions on how to safely use a P2 mask can be accessed on the ACT Health website.

Posted by ACTWell First Aid Training, Canberra on Friday, January 3, 2020

There have also been reports that residents are driving as far as Campbelltown and across Sydney, to buy air purifiers, while supply shops in the ACT are ironically (and understandably) closed due to smoke.

Australia Post deliveries are still being impacted by the smoke, so many are also unable to receive their masks in the mail. Please ensure you undertake other precautions to protect yourself from the smoke.

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22 Responses to 100,000 masks arrive in Canberra as ACT Health warns they are not 100 per cent effective
Alessandra Whiting Alessandra Whiting 8:26 am 08 Jan 20

I wish someone could provide the evidence for the restriction to 14 years and above. I confirmed with the TGA that “Face masks which are non-sterile and designed as safety or protective apparel for use in the home or for recreational or occupational use are excluded from the regulation by the TGA under the Therapeutic Goods Act” and yet the TGA is being referenced as the source of this age limit.

Other countries do suggest the use of masks in children and pollution masks designed for children are available legally in Australia.

I’m certainly not suggesting children go out in the smoke but, used carefully, pollution masks for children surely can be used as part of a family’s risk reduction strategies.

My children wear their masks when moving through un-purified spaces in our home as on the bad days, the air pollution inside can still easily be in the hazardous range even with air purifiers on!

Ray Green Ray Green 6:46 pm 07 Jan 20

I work outside all day. I don’t get a chance to go inside, I don’t wear a P2, I supply my water. And I don’t whinge about people working inside with AC and a Latte machine in the breakout room. I feel so sorry for you.

    Rene Riedelbauch Rene Riedelbauch 1:40 am 09 Jan 20

    Ray Green by equating the scenarios you have in fact winged as well

    Neenie Baines Neenie Baines 6:40 am 10 Jan 20

    Ray Green I work outside all day. And I wear a mask. Because it would be idiocy not to.

    Ray Green Ray Green 6:44 am 10 Jan 20

    Neenie Baines your choice. Barefoot gardener. Say no more

Chloe MH Chloe MH 6:33 pm 07 Jan 20

Stay indoors in rental properties that don't seal up and have no form of air-conditioning? Even with masks, people (like myself) are getting sick. This isn't good enough and a whole lot of laws and policies need to change moving forward. This bushfire season is just one example of the catastrophic weather events climate change has exacerbated - it's just the beginning.

    Lisina Metionina Lisina Metionina 6:44 pm 07 Jan 20

    Same here, rental property that don't seal up and doesn't have air conditioning and we are also getting sick. We told the real state about the cracks on the wall but they said it's normal. Laws and policies should change as fast as climate is doing now.

    Em Roberts Em Roberts 9:01 pm 07 Jan 20

    Chloe Harpley absolutely! Also: what is the government doing to protect people who are homeless!!?!?! What good is “stay inside” advise for them!?

    Neenie Baines Neenie Baines 6:42 am 10 Jan 20

    Chloe Harpley it’s not because it’s a rental property, it’s because it’s not new, and because houses aren’t built to deal with this. Canberra houses aren’t built to deal with the conditions well at all.

Christopher Mawbey Christopher Mawbey 11:49 am 07 Jan 20

It currently looks like a normal summers day pollution over Canberra atm. If you live in a bowl pollution will gather there.

Christopher Mawbey Christopher Mawbey 11:46 am 07 Jan 20

Try working hard where your up and down all day liked a brikie in one of them.

Leo Menssen Leo Menssen 10:21 am 07 Jan 20

These P2 masks do not give a good seal around the nose and mouth. They are of limited use.

Jill Lyall Jill Lyall 8:22 am 07 Jan 20

I have had conflicting advice on the harms of the smoke particles. My doctor told me there is no evidence of harm from long term exposure such as we are experiencing in Canberra, simply due to the fact there is no precedent and therefore no studies done on the impact on health of exposure to wood smoke over weeks or months.

    Alessandra Whiting Alessandra Whiting 8:14 am 08 Jan 20

    Jill Lyall there are lots of studies in exposure to particulates, so I’m not sure where your doctor gets that idea. It’s the reason that wood fireplaces are banned in some areas. Most studies have looked at heart health or respiratory problems due to wood smoke or generalised city air pollution.

    Admittedly, most places where these studies have been conducted are places where the air pollution is consistently present, so we don’t know if the affect will be lessened here due to the short timeframe or worse because we’ve had some really hideous days.

    If you feel like a scare, have a search on Google Scholar.

Mark Ramsay Mark Ramsay 8:21 pm 06 Jan 20

Well done federal government. There’s been smoke for nearly 2 months and they’ve just remembered they had these masks in storage 🙄

    Jan Gulliver Jan Gulliver 9:41 pm 06 Jan 20

    Mark Ramsay didn’t they say they have arrived in Canberra only today, that’s my impression anyway. Masks have been very hard to get

    Mark Ramsay Mark Ramsay 9:44 pm 06 Jan 20

    Jan Gulliver it was my understanding that these masks were in storage with the federal bureaucracy for use in an emergency. My criticism is that they are a little late to the party

Invis.Abilities Invis.Abilities 6:38 pm 06 Jan 20

Why is ACT Health advice that “serious harms are unlikely” when people are already suffering and experts are saying long term health impacts are likely?

When smoke levels were previously above extremely hazardous, ACT Health even advised sensitive groups to consider temporarily relocating. Although it’s not an option for most, it should be their responsibility to include it in health advice, given our houses and public indoor spaces are filled with smoke and shutting down.

    David Witte David Witte 10:04 pm 06 Jan 20

    Invis.Abilities that's not in the article at all.

    Invis.Abilities Invis.Abilities 7:31 am 07 Jan 20

    It is in the ACT Health advice that is linked in the article.

Mark Lavis Mark Lavis 6:17 pm 06 Jan 20

Important to note that remaining indoors is not a surefire way to avoid dangerous levels of PM2.5. Our apartment (mid 90s construction) had an internal reading of 500 parts per million despite being completely closed up over the Christmas break. With an air purifier running full time, we managed to get it down to 80ppm over the worst of the weekend smoke.

    Karen Kentwell Karen Kentwell 7:12 pm 06 Jan 20

    Mark Lavis agreed. I spent two day indoors (1960s house with obvious leakage so smoke inside). I can still feel burnt trees on my teeth.

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