Heading back to the office? Here’s how to protect yourself and your colleagues from coronavirus



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Lisa Bricknell, CQUniversity Australia and Dale Trott, CQUniversity Australia

One of the most profound ways the COVID-19 pandemic has affected our lives has been in the way we work. For people lucky enough to keep their jobs, and for those of us in professions where it’s possible, working from home has become the new normal.

Australia’s success in “flattening the curve” means restrictions are now being lifted. With this, many employers are bringing their staff back into the office, or at least contemplating doing so.

But as the current outbreaks in Victoria show, it’s dangerous to think we’re now safe from the threat of COVID-19.

So, what do we need to consider as we take those first tentative steps back into the office?




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First, how does the virus spread?

While there’s a lot we still don’t know about SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, we do know it spreads most effectively from person to person in droplet form. Infected people emit these droplets when they sneeze, cough, and even speak.

Those droplets can be transmitted directly through the air — say when an infectious person coughs in the direction of someone else close by — or they can settle on surfaces, where they can remain viable for hours.

The virus enters the body of a non-infected person through contact with mucous membranes in the nose, mouth or eyes and attaches to cells in the upper respiratory tract to establish infection.

Many of us are keen to get back to the office.
Shutterstock

What does this mean for office workers?

In many workplaces, employees share a small office space, work in an open-plan office, or use “hot desks” that are shared between several different employees on different shifts.

Workers in these situations are often required to work for long periods in environments that make it hard to maintain the recommended 4m² distancing rule.

This combination — several hours spent in close contact — increases the risk of COVID-19 transmission. This is illustrated by an outbreak in an open-plan call centre in Seoul, where more than 43% of workers contracted COVID-19 during February and March.




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Considerations for employers

First, each employee in a shared office should be able to have at least 4m² to themselves. If this isn’t possible, it would be a good idea to stagger staff or allow them to continue working from home for now.

Second, think about airflow. Small offices often have insufficient airflow to dilute the virus, and, if an infectious person is present, could end up with high concentrations of viral particles over the course of an hour or so.

Conversely, higher rates of airflow combined with poor ventilation can also lead to infection, as droplets can be carried further.

So where possible, increase ventilation and air exchange in open-plan workspaces. Increasing the ratio of fresh air intake to recirculated air can reduce the concentration of virus particles in air conditioned spaces. Even simply opening windows can reduce viral spread.

Ramping up cleaning practices is a must.
Shutterstock

Third, cleaning protocols need to be increased. Where once a twice weekly visit from a contracted cleaner to vacuum the floors, empty the bins and quickly wipe over surfaces was considered sufficient, during COVID-19 you need to ensure a thorough daily clean of all surfaces.

Frequently touched surfaces, such as desks, light switches, door handles, phones, staircase railings, touch screens, keypads, taps and toilets should be given special attention and may require more frequent cleaning.




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Fourth, if a worker becomes sick with respiratory symptoms, isolate them from other staff and arrange for them to go home. Advise them to get tested for COVID-19 and not return to work until they have a negative result.

Similarly, reinforce the message, “if you’re sick, get tested and don’t come to work”. Now more than ever, the culture of “soldiering on” while unwell puts others at risk.

Finally, you might also consider asking employees to wear face masks at work. Face masks are unlikely to protect the person wearing them but can limit the disease being spread by coughs and sneezes.

Considerations for employees

First, you should clean equipment like keyboards, phones and mice regularly, and definitely between each user if desks are shared. Simply wipe your desk and equipment with a domestic spray cleaner.

Second, the best protection against the virus is personal hygiene. Washing your hands with soap and water offers excellent protection against SARS-CoV-2. When you can’t wash your hands, use an alcohol-based hand sanitiser instead.

You should wash or sanitise your hands regularly throughout the day, especially any time you touch anything you suspect someone else has recently been in contact with.

Both employers and employees can reduce the risk COVID-19 will spread in an office environment.
Shutterstock

Third, maintain a distance of 1.5m from other people to protect yourself from airborne droplets.

Fourth, practise good respiratory hygiene by coughing and sneezing into a tissue or the crook of your elbow. This prevents viral particles spreading over surfaces and toward people around you.

Lastly, if you have any symptoms, don’t go to work. Get tested as soon as possible and stay at home until you receive the results.




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The Conversation


Lisa Bricknell, Senior Lecturer in Environmental Health, CQUniversity Australia and Dale Trott, Lecturer, Environmental Health, CQUniversity Australia

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Donald Trump is taking hydroxychloroquine to ward off COVID-19. Is that wise?


Teresa G. Carvalho, La Trobe University

The White House’s confirmation that US President Donald Trump has been taking hydroxychloroquine every day for the past two weeks, with his doctor’s blessing, has reignited the controversy over the drug. It has long been used against malaria but has not been approved for COVID-19.

Trump said he has “heard a lot of good stories” about hydroxychloroquine, and incorrectly claimed there is no evidence of harmful side-effects from taking it. His previous claims in March that the drug could be a “game changer” in the pandemic prompted many people, including Australian businessman and politician Clive Palmer, to suggest stockpiling and distribution of the drug to the public.

But the dangers of acting on false or incomplete health information were underlined by the death of an Arizona man in March after inappropriate consumption of the related drug chloroquine. It’s important to know the real science behind the touted health benefits.

How do these medicines work?

Hydroxychloroquine is an analogue of chloroquine, meaning both compounds have similar chemical structures and a similar mode of action against malaria. Both medications are administered orally and have common side-effects such as nausea, diarrhoea and muscle weakness. However, hydroxychloroquine is less toxic, probably because it is easier for the body to metabolise.

Chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine are listed by the World Health Organisation as an essential medicine. Both drugs have been used to treat malaria for more than 70 years, and hydroxychloroquine has also proved effective against auto-immune diseases such as systemic lupus erythematosus and rheumatoid arthritis. The US Food and Drug Administration has approved both chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine for treating malaria, but not for COVID-19.




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We don’t know exactly how these drugs work to combat the malaria parasite. But we know chloroquine disrupts the parasite’s digestive enzymes by altering the pH inside the parasite cell, presumably effectively starving it to death.

Malaria parasites and coronaviruses are very different organisms. So how can the same drugs work against both? In lab studies, chloroquine hinders replication of the SARS coronavirus, apparently by changing the pH inside particular parts of human cells where the virus replicates.

This offers a glimmer of hope that these pH changes inside cells could hold the key to thwarting such different types of pathogens.

Is it OK to repurpose drugs like this?

Existing drugs can be extremely valuable in an emergency like a pandemic, because we already know the maximum dose and any potential toxic side-effects. This gives us a useful basis on which to consider using them for a new purpose. Chloroquine is also cheap to manufacture, and has already been widely used in humans.

But we shouldn’t be complacent. There are significant gaps in our understanding of the biology of SARS-CoV-2, which causes COVID-19, because it is a brand new virus. There is a 20% genetic difference between SARS-CoV-2 and the previous SARS coronavirus, meaning we should not assume a drug shown to act against SARS will automatically work for SARS-CoV-2.

Widely used, but with common side effects.
Gary L. Hider/Shutterstock

Even in its primary use against malaria, long-term chloroquine exposure can lead to increased risks such as vision impairment and cardiac arrest. Hydroxychloroquine offers a safer treatment plan with reduced tablet dosages and lessened side-effects. But considering their potentially lethal cardiovascular side-effects, these drugs are especially detrimental to those who are overweight or have pre-existing heart conditions. Despite the urgent need to confront COVID-19, we need to tread carefully when using existing medicines in new ways.

Any medication that has not been thoroughly tested for the disease in question can have seriously toxic side-effects. What’s more, different diseases may require different doses of the same drug. So we would need to ensure any dose that can protect against SARS-CoV-2 would actually be safe to take.

The evidence so far

Although many clinical trials are under way, there is still not enough evidence chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine will be useful against COVID-19. The few trials completed and published so far, despite claiming positive outcomes, have been either small and poorly controlled or lacking in detail.

A recent hydroxychloroquine trial in China showed no significant benefits for COVID-19 patients’ recovery rate. A French hydroxychloroquine trial was similarly discouraging, with eight patients prematurely discontinuing the treatment after heart complications.

The fascination with chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine has also adversely affected other drug trials. Clinical trials of other possible COVID-19 treatments, including HIV drugs and antidepressants, have seen reduced enrolments. Needless to say, in a pandemic we should not be putting all our eggs in one basket.

Then there is the issue of chloroquine hoarding, which not only encourages dangerous self-medication, but also puts malaria patients at greater risk. With malaria transmission season looming in some countries, the anticipated shortage of chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine will severely impact current malaria control efforts.




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Overall, despite their tantalising promise as antiviral drugs, there isn’t enough evidence chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine are safe and suitable to use against COVID-19. The current preliminary data need to be backed up by multiple properly designed clinical trials that monitor patients for prolonged periods.

During a pandemic there is immense pressure to find drugs that will work. But despite Trump’s desperation for a miracle cure, the risks of undue haste are severe.


This article was coauthored by Liana Theodoridis, an Honours student in Microbiology at La Trobe University.The Conversation

Teresa G. Carvalho, Senior Lecturer in Microbiology, La Trobe University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Early exposure to infections doesn’t protect against allergies, but getting into nature might



Katya Shut/Shutterstock

Emily Johnston Flies, University of Tasmania and Philip Weinstein, University of Adelaide

Over the past few decades, allergies and asthma have become common childhood diseases, especially in developed countries. Almost 20% of Australians experience some kind of allergy, whether it’s to food, pollen, dust, housemites, mould or animals.

When people suffer from food allergies, hay fever or asthma, their immune system incorrectly believes the trigger substances are harmful and mounts a defence.

The response can range from mild symptoms, such as sneezing and a blocked nose (in the case of hay fever), to anaphylaxis (from severe food allergies or bee stings) and asthma attacks.




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We used to think the rise in allergic conditions was because we weren’t exposed to as many early infections as previous generations. But the science suggests that’s not the case.

However it seems being out in nature, and exposed to diverse (but not disease-causing) bacteria, fungi and other microorganisms may help protect against asthma and allergies.

Remind me, what’s the hygiene hypothesis?

In 1989, researcher David Strachan examined allergy patterns in more than 17,000 children in England. He noticed young siblings in large families were less likely to have hay fever than older siblings or children from small families.

He proposed that these younger siblings were exposed to more childhood illness at a younger age, as more bugs were circulating in these large families and the younger children were less likely to wash their hands and practise good hygiene.

Greater exposure to these childhood infections helped “train” their immune systems not to overreact to harmless things like pollen.

Strachan coined the term “hygiene hypothesis” to explain this phenomenon, and the idea has been appealing to our dirty side ever since.

Yes, it’s a good idea for kids to wash their hands regularly to avoid getting sick.
Wor Sang Jun/Shutterstock

Strachan wasn’t the first to notice exposure to “dirty environments” seemed to prevent allergic disease. A century earlier, in 1873, Charles Blackley noted hay fever was a disease of the “educated class”, and rarely occurred in farmers or people living in less sanitary conditions.

Ditching the hygiene hypothesis

However, Blackley and Strachan were wrong about one important thing: the association between sanitation and allergies is not due to reduced exposure to early childhood infections (or “pathogens”).

Large studies from Denmark, Finland, and the United Kingdom have found no association between the number of viral infections during childhood and allergic disease. In other words, exposure to disease-causing pathogens doesn’t appear to prevent allergies.

In fact, exposure to childhood viral infections, in addition to making a child sick, may contribute to the development of asthma in predisposed children.




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Many researchers now argue the term “hygiene hypothesis” is not only inaccurate but potentially dangerous, because it suggests avoiding infection is a bad thing. It’s not.

Good hygiene practices, such as hand washing, are critical for reducing the spread of infectious and potentially deadly diseases such as influenza and the Wuhan coronavirus.

What about ‘good’ exposure to bacteria?

For healthy immune function, we need exposure to a diverse range of bacteria, fungi and other bugs – known as microbes – in the environment that don’t make us sick.

We need exposure to a range of organisms found in nature.
caseyjadew/Shutterstock



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Within urban environments, recent research shows people who live closer to green, biodiverse ecosystems tend to be healthier, with less high blood pressure and lower rates of diabetes and premature death, among other things.

More specifically, research has found growing up on a farm or near forests, with exposure to more biodiverse ecosystems, reduces the likelihood of developing asthma and other allergies.




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This is potentially because exposure to a diversity of organisms, with a lower proportion of human pathogens, has “trained” the immune system not to overreact to harmless proteins in pollen, peanuts and other allergy triggers.

How can we get more ‘good’ exposure?

We can try to expose children to environments more like the ones in which humans, and our immune systems, evolved.

Most obviously, children need to have exposure to green space. Playing outdoors, having a garden, or living near green space (especially near a diverse range of native flowering plants) is likely to expose them to more diverse microbes and provide greater protection from allergic diseases.

Infants who are breastfed tend to have more diverse gut microbiomes (a larger variety of bacteria, fungi and other microscopic organisms that live in the gut), which makes them less likely to develop allergic diseases in childhood.




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Having a varied diet that includes fresh and fermented foods can help cultivate a healthy gut microbiome and reduce allergic disease. As can using antibiotics only when necessary, as they kill off good bacteria as well as the bad.

So keep washing your hands, especially in cities and airports, but don’t be afraid of getting a little dirty in biodiverse environments.

This article was co-authored by Chris Skelly, International Programme Director, Healthy Urban Microbiomes Initiative and Head of Programmes (Research and Intelligence), Public Health Dorset.The Conversation

Emily Johnston Flies, Postdoctoral Research Fellow (U.Tasmania), University of Tasmania and Philip Weinstein, Professorial Research Fellow, University of Adelaide

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Bushfire smoke is bad for your eyes, too. Here’s how you can protect them



When the hazardous particles found in bushfire smoke come into contact with our eyes, this can cause inflammation.
From shutterstock.com

Katrina Schmid, Queensland University of Technology and Isabelle Jalbert, UNSW

As we continue to contend with smoke haze in various parts of the country, many Australians may find themselves with watery, burning, irritated or red eyes.

Data from countries with consistently poor air quality suggest there could also be a risk of longer term effects to our eyes, particularly with prolonged exposure to bushfire smoke.

Although P2/N95 masks can protect us from inhaling harmful particles, unfortunately they can’t protect our eyes.

But there are certain things you can do to minimise irritation and the risk of any longer term effects.




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Irritation in the short term

The eye’s surface is continuously exposed to the environment, except when our eyes are shut when we sleep.

Bushfire smoke contains dust, fumes (such as carbon monoxide and nitrogen oxides), and tiny particles called PM10 and PM2.5.

When the smoke comes into contact with our eyes, the fumes and small particles dissolve into our tears and coat the eye’s surface. In some people, this can trigger inflammation, and therefore irritation.




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The presence of a marker called matrix metalloproteinase-9, or MMP-9, indicates the eye is inflamed.

During periods of poor air quality from bushfires in the United States, MMP-9 was present in the eyes of more people than it ordinarily would be.

Longer term risks

We know very little about how pollution from bushfire smoke might affect our eyes over the longer term, or what damage repeated or chronic exposure might do.

But we do know people who live in areas with high levels of air pollution, such as China, are three to four times more likely to develop dry eye.

Dry eye is a condition where a person doesn’t have enough tears or they are of such poor quality they don’t lubricate and nourish the eye. We need high quality tears to maintain the health of the front surface of the eye and provide clear vision.

For people who already have dry eyes – often older people – poor air quality may increase the damage. The smoke and pollution may cause intense stinging and a feeling of grittiness to the point they can barely open their eyes.

Avoid rubbing your eyes, as this could make the irritation worse.
From shutterstock.com

While dry eye is a result of damage to the surface of the eyes, it’s also possible pollutants entering the blood stream after we breathe them in could affect the blood supply to the eye. This in turn could damage the fine vessels within the eye itself.

Research has suggested high levels of air pollution in Taiwan may increase the risk of age-related macular degeneration, which could be an example of this.

We need more research into the long-term effects on our eyes of prolonged poor air quality, particularly from bushfire smoke. But what we do know suggests it’s possible bushfire smoke could be causing subtle damage to the eyes, even in people without any symptoms.




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What can you do to protect your eyes from the smoke?

  • the best option is to avoid going outside when air quality is at is worst, where possible
  • wearing sunglasses or glasses when outside if you need them might stop some of the dust carried in the wind from contacting the eye’s surface (but it won’t stop the tiny particles getting in)
  • avoid wearing contact lenses if possible.

Some tips if your eyes are irritated

  • flush your eyes as often as you can, with over-the-counter lubricant eye drops if you have some on hand. If not, use sterile saline solution or clean bottled water
  • if your eyes are itchy, flush them and then place a cool face washer over your closed lids
  • don’t rub your eyes, as this could make the irritation worse.

If your eyes are red and sore and these steps don’t help, it’s best to see an eye care professional.




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From face masks to air purifiers: what actually works to protect us from bushfire smoke?


The Conversation


Katrina Schmid, Associate Professor, Queensland University of Technology and Isabelle Jalbert, Associate Professor, School of Optometry and Vision Science, UNSW Sydney, UNSW

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

The case of the pirated blueberries: courts flex new muscle to protect plant breeders’ intellectual property



Not all blueberries are the same. A variety called Ridley 1111 is at the centre of an important lawsuit for intellectual property and plants.
Shutterstock

David Jefferson, The University of Queensland

A few weeks ago, the Federal Court of Australia ordered a farmer in New South Wales to pay A$290,000 to a blueberry-producing company because he had grown and sold a proprietary variety of the fruit without permission.

At issue in the blueberry case were questions of intellectual property. Who owns the plant varieties that are commercialised in Australia and other countries? Who can grow them? If you are the owner of a particular variety, how can you prove someone else has grown it without your permission, and what can you do about it?

The case is an important one in an area of law that may affect how we develop new varieties of plants. This type of work is important to address challenges such as food security and climate change adaptation.




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Australia’s intellectual property law was changed last February to give courts more options to protect plant breeders’ rights. This case is one of the first to take those revisions into account, which give courts more options to impose sanctions for infringements.

The plant breeders’ rights system works like a patent or trademark for plant varieties: when breeders create a new variety, they can register it and obtain exclusive rights to grow and sell it.

The system is designed to encourage breeders – who may include scientists, companies, or growers themselves – to develop innovative plant varieties. In other words, the possibility of commercial exclusivity functions as a profit incentive.

The case of Ridley 1111

The recent case (Mountain Blue Orchards v. Chellew) was about a blueberry variety named Ridley 1111. It has appealing characteristics for growers and consumers alike: the berries ripen early and have a notable dark blue colour and firmness.

The NSW-based growers Mountain Blue Orchards obtained plant breeders’ rights for Ridley 1111 in September 2010.

This March, Mountain Blue filed a claim before the Federal Court. They alleged that a grower based near Grafton in NSW named Jason Chellew had obtained, grown, and sold Ridley 1111 blueberries without authorisation.

Earlier this month, the Federal Court found in Mountain Blue’s favour. The court ordered Chellew to destroy the infringing plants and pay Mountain Blue A$290,000 in damages. This sum included compensatory damages, additional damages, interest, and litigation costs.

How do you prove someone has pirated your plants?

Establishing infringement for plant varieties is more difficult than for products protected with other kinds of intellectual property.

If someone is using your trademarked brand name, or is selling a widget that you patented, it is relatively straightforward to show infringement by deconstructing these things into their component elements.

In contrast, plants are complex living organisms that change based on human and non-human influences alike.

DNA testing played a role in the Ridley 1111 case, but this alone may not be enough to prove infringement. A protected variety may have only minor genetic differences from other varieties. Likewise, two individual plants of the same variety may have tiny genetic differences due to random mutations.

Furthermore, plant breeders’ rights infringement may occur at a small scale over diffuse areas, making it difficult for rights owners to enforce their rights.

Finally, it is difficult to collect evidence of possible infringement. If plants are grown on private property they can be hard to see, and third parties may be reluctant to help. Rights owners may also be wary of possible adverse business or public image consequences from pursuing a case.

A new kind of damages

Another difficulty in plant breeders’ rights infringement cases relates to the limits of how much impact even a successful case might have.

Until last February, courts could only award damages based on a calculation of the actual loss suffered by the rights owner. It can be difficult to put a number on this loss, which meant that many in the agricultural industry saw plant breeders’ rights infringement as having few practical consequences.

The Ridley 1111 case is a sign that this may be changing, however. It is one of the first the Federal Court has considered since February’s comprehensive amendments to Australian intellectual property law, which now allows judges to award additional damages.

Courts can now consider several factors when setting damages in an infringement case, including how flagrant the infringement is and the need to deter future infringements. This brings plant breeders’ rights into line with other forms of intellectual property law such as patents and trademarks.

The resulting penalties can now be much higher. This could encourage growers to pursue licensing deals with the owners of protected varieties, when in the past they might have risked a lawsuit to save on royalty payments.

However, this assumes growers are aware of the possibility of heightened penalties, and that rights owners can prove that infringement actually occurred.




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Encouraging innovation

What effect will these changes have on the ground? It is probably too ambitious to argue that these changes alone will lead to increased innovation in plant breeding, as some industry groups have claimed.

The development of new plant varieties involves significant investments of time and other resources. What’s more, breeding often relies on substantial collaborations between the private sector and public or academic research institutions.

So while the possibility of obtaining additional damages in an infringement action may have some effect, other factors will continue to affect the development of new plant varieties.

These include the ongoing need for governmental support of plant breeding initiatives, the development of effective partnerships between the public and private sectors, and an accurate understanding of the kinds of crops that would be best suited to Australia’s climatic and agronomic peculiarities and to the desires of Australian consumers.The Conversation

David Jefferson, Research Fellow, The University of Queensland

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

From face masks to air purifiers: what actually works to protect us from bushfire smoke?


Lidia Morawska, Queensland University of Technology

Bushfire smoke has now been blanketing parts of Australia for months. This week the air quality in Sydney reached new lows, reported to be 12 times hazardous levels in some parts of the city on Tuesday.

Beyond being stifling and unpleasant, people are experiencing irritated eyes and breathing difficulties.

Statistics emerging from hospital records show an increase in emergency hospital admissions for a range of diseases from asthma to heart disease and stroke.

We’ll only fully understand the longer term health effects in the weeks and months to come.

When the situation is as bad as it has been in Sydney over the past few days, people stop asking questions about whether air pollution has an impact on health; we know it has. The question on everybody’s mind now is: how can I protect myself and my family?




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Does staying indoors help?

Our natural instinct tells us if the conditions outside are bad, we should seek refuge inside. The indoor environment provides some protection against bushfire smoke and outdoor air pollution in general, but the degree of protection depends on the type of building and importantly, its ventilation.

Buildings such as shopping centres, most modern office buildings and hospitals are equipped with heating ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) systems, which incorporate air filters.

The efficiency of these systems depends on the filter technology and the size of the filtered particles. Smaller particles are generally more difficult to catch and remove, but sophisticated technology can achieve this. It varies, but what we call HEPA (high efficiency particulate air) filters can remove close to 100% of airborne particles.

The particles we’re concerned about in bushfire smoke are ultrafine particles. So these are likely to be removed with HEPA filters, but could get through less sophisticated filters.

Residential homes and apartments are not commonly equipped with HVAC systems. Instead, they’re naturally ventilated, typically by opening the windows. So in residential houses, the indoor concentrations of pollutants are often close to the outdoor concentrations, particularly when the windows are open.

Even if the windows are closed, outdoor pollutants will penetrate indoors if the building is “leaky”, meaning there are cracks the air can get through. This is the case in many old buildings, particularly those built from timber.

Air purifiers

One option to improve the quality of indoor air is to use air purifiers. Air purifiers use a system of internal fans to pull the air through a series of filters that remove airborne particles. The air purifier then circulates the purified air back into the room.

But again, the protection offered by purifiers can range from low to very high. As with filtration systems, the level of protection depends on the type of purifier you have. Those equipped with HEPA filters are much more efficient.




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How does poor air quality from bushfire smoke affect our health?


Their effectiveness also depends on the volume of air the purifier services, the setting (one room or several interconnected rooms), the ventilation rate (this is measured by how many times the whole volume of air is exchanged per hour) and how it is set to operate (continuous or intermittent).

To put this in context, operating a purifier equipped with a HEPA filter in a typical bedroom would significantly reduce the concentration of air pollution in the bedroom, most likely to a safe level. However, operating a less efficient purifier in a large, open plan house is not likely to help much.

Face masks

Many people consider face masks to be the best protection against air pollution. But for the most part, they merely provide a false sense of security.

Firstly, a mask is only effective if it’s properly fitted: if the fit is not perfect, most of the small particles, such as those present in the pollution plume from bushfires, will get through.

Secondly, the efficiency of the mask depends on the behaviour of the person wearing it. This includes how long you wear the mask for and how often you take it off. Considering wearing a mask is uncomfortable – particularly when it’s hot – it’s not easy to keep it on all the time.

Industrial style masks are more fitted than simple fabric masks, so can be more effective – but still depend on the wearer’s behaviour. These are not practical to wear all the time.

And if it’s questionable whether a mask will protect an adult, it’s even less likely to protect a small child. A child cannot be expected to tolerate the inconvenience and discomfort of correctly wearing a mask.




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In summary, indoors we are protected to some degree from outdoor air pollution, so consider staying inside where possible – particularly if you have an existing health condition.

You might like to wear a mask or invest in an air purifier. These may help to some degree, but are emergency measures that don’t in themselves represent a solution.

While the air quality is likely to improve in Sydney and other affected regions as these fires ease, our changing climate means we can only expect to be in this situation more and more. The only real way forward is to address the climate crisis urgently and decisively.The Conversation

Lidia Morawska, Professor, Science and Engineering Faculty; Director, International Laboratory for Air Quality and Health (WHO CC for Air Quality and Health); Director – Australia, Australia – China Centre for Air Quality Science and Management (ACC-AQSM), Queensland University of Technology

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Australia to send naval and air assistance to protect Middle East sea lanes: Morrison


Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra

Australia will commit a frigate, an aircraft and some headquarters staff to an American-led freedom of navigation operation in the Middle East.

Scott Morrison, announcing the long-expected commitment at a Canberra news conference on Wednesday, stressed this was an international mission, but so far the United Kingdom is the only other country to have signed up.

Under questioning, the Chief of the Australian Defence Force, General Angus Campbell, said the operation would be United States-led. But Campbell avoided spelling out in detail the rules of engagement in the event of being involved in an incident, other than referring to legal obligations.

Iran has seized ships in recent months, amid escalating tensions.

This week, an Iranian oil tanker was released after being detained by the British overseas territory of Gibraltar on suspicion of taking oil to Syria. The US tried unsuccessfully to have Gibraltar extend the vessel’s detention.

Morrison said Australia had made very clear both to the US and the UK “that we are here as part of a multinational effort”.

“This is a modest, meaningful and time-limited contribution …to this international effort to ensure we maintain free-flow of commerce and of navigation,” he said.

“Australia will defend our interests, wherever they may be under threat, we will always work closely with our international allies and partners.”




Read more:
Morrison looking at details for commitment to protect shipping


Morrison emphasised that the safety of shipping lanes was vital to Australia’s economic interests.

The government had been concerned over incidents in the Strait of Hormuz, he said. “30% of refined oil destined for Australia travels through the Strait. It is a threat to our economy.”

The Australian contribution will be

  • a P-8A Poseidon maritime surveillance aircraft for one month before the end of 2019;

  • an Australian frigate in January 2020 for six months; and

  • ADF personnel to the International Maritime Security Construct headquarters in Bahrain.

One complication for Australia in finalising the commitment was the fact there was no Australian frigate in the area, with the next deployment not due until January.

Australian ships participate in counter-piracy and counter-terrorism operations in the Middle East.

The Americans were very pressing in their request to Australia to join the force, including in public statements during the recent AUSMIN talks.

Morrison has emphasised Australia wants to see the de-escalation of tensions in the area and separates its commitment to the freedom of navigation operation from America’s other activities in relation to Iran.The Conversation

Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

As Australia looks to join a coalition in Iran, the risks are many



The Morrison government must have a plan for Australia’s involvement if the “peacekeeping” descends into hostility.
AAP/Lukas Coch

Tony Walker, La Trobe University

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has indicated Australia will join a multinational peacekeeping force to protect freedom of navigation in the Gulf, but at this stage he has not indicated what form Australian participation might take.

Speaking to reporters after a conversation overnight with newly-installed British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, Morrison said Australia was “looking very carefully at an international, multinational initiative” to provide a peacekeeping role.

But given recent experience of Australia too hastily joining an American-led Iraq invasion of 2003, with disastrous consequences, Morrison and his advisers need to ask some hard questions – and set clear limits on any Australian involvement.

It is not clear the extent to which the prime minister and his team have interrogated the risks involved before acceding to an American request for some form of military contribution to policing one of the world’s most strategically important waterways.




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Iran and US refusing to budge as tit-for-tat ship seizures in Middle East raise the temperature


Nor is it clear what form Australian engagement might take to deter Iran’s threats to tanker traffic. This includes its seizing of a British-flagged vessel.

Options include sending a warship or warships to join peacekeeping patrols under American command, or stationing surveillance aircraft in the region to monitor ship movements through the Strait of Hormuz.

The operative words in the above paragraph are “American command”.

Any peacekeeping mission might be presented as a multinational exercise, but in effect the preponderance of American power, including an aircraft carrier battle group, means Americans would be in command.

In the Iraq invasion of 2003, Australians operated under broad American oversight, as did the British at considerable cost to Prime Minister Tony Blair’s reputation.

This is not an argument against Australian involvement in protecting a vital sea lane through which passes one-third of the world’s seaborne tradeable oil every day. Rather, it is to make the case for extreme caution.

Morrison and his team need to ask themselves whether there is a risk of being drawn into an American exercise in regime change in Iran. What might be the limits on Australia’s involvement should hostilities broke out in the Gulf?

What would be the rules of engagement? What might be an exit strategy?

What, for example, would be Australia’s response if a warship involved in a peacekeeping exercise was damaged – or sunk – in a hostile act? This includes hitting a mine bobbing in the Gulf waterway, or a limpet mine stuck on the side of a vessel.

We have seen this before in 1984, when traffic in the Gulf was brought to a standstill by Iran floating mines into busy sea lanes.

What would Australia’s response be in the case of a surveillance aircraft or drone being shot down if it strayed into Iranian airspace?

In other words, there are multiple possibilities of conflict escalating given the concentration of firepower that is planned for the Gulf.

The aim of any international mission to which Australia attaches itself should be to de-escalate tensions in the world’s most volatile region. A military presence cannot – and should not – be detached from a political imperative.

That imperative is to draw Iran back into discussions on a revitalised Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. Under this 2015 plan, the Iranians agreed to freeze their nuclear program under International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) supervision.

Iran was complying with that agreement before US President Donald Trump recklessly abrogated it in 2018 and re-applied sanctions. These have brought Iran’s economy to its knees.




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US-Iran conflict escalates again, raising the threat of another war in the Middle East


Trump’s abandonment of the JCPOA against the wishes of the other signatories, including the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany, was as inexplicable as it was damaging.

Now, the world is facing a crisis in the Gulf of American making, and one that Washington is asking its allies to police.

Morrison has been equivocal about the JCPOA. He would be well advised to reiterate Australia’s backing for the agreement as a signal to the Americans that Australia stands with its allies in its support of international obligations.

These cannot – and should not – be ripped up at the whim of a president who seems to have been motivated largely by a desire to undo the useful work of his predecessor.

Not to put too fine a point on it, this has been an act of self-harm to American interests and those of its allies. It is a crisis that need not have occurred.

Viewed from the distance of Canberra, Morrison and his advisers might have difficulty fully comprehending the risks involved in a potential escalation of tensions in the Gulf.

In a useful paper, the International Crisis Group warns of the dangers of an escalation of hostilities due to a mistake or accident in a highly charged environment.

As Iran Project Director Ali Vaez puts it:

Just as in Europe in 1914 a single incident has the potential of sparking a military confrontation that could, in turn, engulf the entire region.

What should be kept in mind in all of this is that it is not simply stresses in the Gulf itself that are threatening stability, but a host of other Middle East flashpoints. These include ongoing conflicts in Syria and Yemen, and heightened tensions between Iran and a Sunni majority led by Saudi Arabia.

Then there is the drumbeat on Capitol Hill. Hawkish Republican lawmakers agitate for pre-emptive strikes against Iran in the mistaken belief such an exercise would be clinical and short-lived.

Further destabilisation of the entire region would result, and possibly all-out war.

The ICG is urging America to redouble its efforts to establish a dialogue with Iran to bring about a resumption of negotiations on a revised JCPOA. This would require Washington making a down payment in good faith by easing sanctions on Iran’s oil exports.

It is not clear the Trump administration would be willing or able to make these concessions.

Morrison could do worse than argue the case for “redo” of the JCPOA when he is in Washington next month on a state visit.The Conversation

Tony Walker, Adjunct Professor, School of Communications, La Trobe University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Morrison looking at details for commitment to protect shipping


Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra

Scott Morrison has flagged the government is working with the United States and Britain on details for an Australian role in helping safeguard shipping passages in the Middle East.

Morrison told a news conference in Townsville on Thursday he had spoken to British Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Wednesday night and “indicated to him that we were looking very carefully at our participation in this initiative”.

Morrison stressed it would be a multinational operation.

This is not a unilateral initiative by any one country, and it is about safe shipping lanes, it is about deescalating tensions and making sure that the current situation does not worsen.

He said the government had not “made any decisions on this yet. We want to be fully satisfied about the operational arrangements that are in place”. It was very early days and it would be a while before things came together.




Read more:
Iran and US refusing to budge as tit-for-tat ship seizures in Middle East raise the temperature


In practice though, the government has obviously agreed in principle, subject to satisfactory arrangements being worked out. Its role is somewhat complicated, however, by the fact it does not have a ship in the region.

The US’s request for Australian assistance was discussed at the weekend AUSMIN talks.

Morrison said there were other countries which were in a similar position to Australia – “engaging before making any full decisions”.

He stressed the maritime issue “should be clearly divorced from the broader issues that relate to Iran and the JCPOA [Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action – the nuclear deal that the US pulled out of last year].

“That’s a separate issue. This is about safe shipping lanes and ensuring that we can restore at least some stability to what is a very unstable part of the world at the moment,” Morrison said.

“There has been a very disturbing series of events that we’ve seen in the Straits of Hormuz, and freedom of navigation and safe shipping lanes is very important to the global economy and that is a matter that is as important in that part of the world as it is in many other parts of the world.”

China hits back at Liberal chair of security committee

The Chinese authorities have accused Liberal MP Andrew Hastie of “Cold-War mentality and ideological bias”, after he drew on the example of France’s “catastrophic” failure to comprehend the threat of a rising Nazi Germany in an article warning about the dangers from a rising China.

Hastie, chair of the powerful parliamentary joint committee on intelligence and security, wrote in the Sydney Morning Herald:

The West once believed that economic liberalisation would naturally lead to democratisation in China. This was our Maginot Line. It would keep us safe, just as the French believed their series of steel and concrete forts would guard them against the German advance in 1940. But their thinking failed catastrophically. The French had failed to appreciate the evolution of mobile warfare. Like the French, Australia has failed to see how mobile our authoritarian neighbour has become.

Even worse, we ignore the role that ideology plays in China’s actions across the Indo-Pacific region. We keep using our own categories to understand its actions, such as its motivations for building ports and roads, rather than those used by the Chinese Communist Party.

The West has made this mistake before. Commentators once believed Stalin’s decisions were the rational actions of a realist great power.

Hastie referred to action Australia had taken such as foreign espionage legislation and more closely monitoring infrastructure.

But “right now our greatest vulnerability lies not in our infrastructure, but in our thinking. That intellectual failure makes us institutionally weak. If we don’t understand the challenge ahead for our civil society, in our parliaments, in our universities, in our private enterprises, in our charities — our little platoons — then choices will be made for us. Our sovereignty, our freedoms, will be diminished.”




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A spokesperson for the Chinese embassy said in a statement:

We strongly deplore the Australian federal MP Andrew Hastie’s rhetoric on “China threat” which lays bare his Cold-War mentality and ideological bias. It goes against the world trend of peace, cooperation and development. It is detrimental to China-Australian relations.

History has proven and will continue to prove that China’s peaceful development is an opportunity, not a threat to the world.

We urge certain Australian politicians to take off their “colored lens” and view China’s development path in an objective and rational way. They should make efforts to promote mutual trust between China and Australia, instead of doing the opposite.

Morrison played down the Hastie comments, noting he was a backbencher not a minister.

We will continue to work to have a cooperative arrangement with China. Of course, there is much to be gained from that relationship, particularly from the trade side, but let’s not forget that relationship is far broader than just the economic one.

But equally, our relationship with the United States is a very special one indeed and there is a deep connection on values and that’s of no surprise to anyone.

So we believe we can continue to manage these relationships together, but I don’t think anyone is in any way unaware of the challenges that present there.The Conversation

Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Australia likely to tick off on US request to help protect shipping in Middle East



Secretary of Defense Mark Esper, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Australian Minister for Foreign Affairs Marise Payne, and Australian Minister for Defence Linda Reynolds at the AUSMIN talks in Sydney.
AAP/Rick Rycroft

Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra

The federal government is expected soon to approve a commitment in response to the United States’ request for allies to help protect shipping as tensions with Iran remain high.

Speaking at a joint news conference after the AUSMIN talks, Defence Minister Linda Reynolds on Sunday said the government was giving the request “very serious consideration”.

Although Reynolds said no decision had yet been made, it would be highly unlikely the request would not receive a favourable answer.

Meanwhile, on Sunday it was reported that Iran state TV said the country’s naval forces had seized another foreign tanker and that seven sailors had been detained. The Iranians said the vessel, carrying 700,000 litres of fuel, was smuggling the fuel to Persian Gulf Arab states.

It is not clear what form Australian assistance would take.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has previously said, when talking about a possible request, “it’s not unheard of to have Australian frigates in that part of the world engaged in maritime operations”.

However Australia does not currently have a ship in the region. An alternative would be to help with aircraft.

Reynolds said the Australian government’s position was very clear.

“We are deeply concerned by the heightened tensions in the region and we strongly condemn the attacks on shipping in the Gulf of Oman,” she said.

“The request that the United States has made is a very serious one and it is a very complex one. That’s why we are currently giving this request very serious consideration.”

US secretary of State Mike Pompeo told the news conference that the US had been very clear that the purpose of the proposed operations had been twofold.

“First of all, to promote the principle of freedom of navigation and freedom of commence through all waterways.

“Number two, is to prevent any provocative actions by Iran that might lead to some misunderstanding or miscalculation that could lead to a conflict.

“When we first advanced this idea several weeks ago, we had good response from some of our allies and partners. We continue to develop that idea,” he said.

The AUSMIN talks were attended by Foreign Minister Marise Payne, Reynolds, Pompeo and US Defence Secretary Mark Esper.

Esper also met Morrison on Sunday afternoon and Morrison had Pompeo to dinner on Sunday night.The Conversation

Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.