Last updated on 19/07/2021

Every winter, Karen rushes to be home before her 5pm curfew to avoid smoky streets.

Karen FelderHi, my name is Karen and I have asthma. I had my first asthma attack when I was eight years old in 1977. I remember being told that I might ‘grow out of it’. Well that was wrong!

My asthma was generally well controlled throughout my life but over the past five years, I have become extremely sensitive to woodfire smoke. Unfortunately, woodfire heaters are extremely common in my area, bayside Melbourne.

Every day in winter we rush to seal the house at 5pm, sometimes earlier. If it is a cold still night, we check the four different pollution apps to help let us know when we should put the purifiers on.

On a bad night at home, when there is a lot of smoke in the air, if I step out of my sealed bedroom (with an air purifier and double-glazed windows) I instantly feel my lungs seize up, it feels suddenly tight and as though someone is sitting and crushing my chest. I need to quickly take medication and go back to the bedroom. It is scary to feel like this in my own home.

Other times it catches me completely unaware. I might go for a walk, turn a corner, and suddenly become overwhelmed by smoke. I instantly have to put my mask on and phone my husband for help. I typically do not walk far from my home in winter for this reason – it is just too risky to walk past a house with a woodfire heater.

Recently, we have even engaged a draft expert to retrofit our house so that we have less air entering from outside, it is an expensive thing to be doing but I am hoping it might keep me safe.

It is very unfair the council puts the onus on those already suffering to accuse our neighbours and have them investigated. It is not something I want to be doing.

Woodfire smoke impacts my whole family; my elderly mum, sister and her two sons (eight and nine years old) and myself. Many days in winter we text each other to warn and remind each other to close windows, put the purifier on and stay inside.

Although my husband and daughter are not sensitive to smoke themselves, this is still something we experience as a family. They work hard to protect me by sealing the house and putting on the purifiers.

I would like people to understand how seriously woodfire smoke affects vulnerable people’s health and ability to live a free life. It forces people to become housebound, afraid to go outside, afraid to go for a walk.

The council has indicated that if we are having problems with the smoke, we should let them know where it is coming from. There are so many woodfire heaters, who do you single out?

For me it has led to reduced lung function, more attacks, more cortisone (and unfortunately osteoporosis possibly because of the cortisone) and it has also had a significant cost to my mental health.

I am not overreacting to this situation. I have done all that I can to protect myself, and not everyone has the means or ability to do what I have. Living with woodfire smoke has reduced my right to a healthy life, it has taken my choice and limited my freedom. Now just going for a walk in the winter evening or getting to an appointment at dusk puts me at risk.

It does not have to be this way. With more education and understanding, I really believe more people might come to see that they are harming others and start to consider making the switch to healthier alternatives. Most people are good, they do not want to think they are causing others to suffer. I am holding onto that for now.