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Australia's air quality is now much worse than smoking shisha

February 15, 2020

Image of women wearing face masks in front of Sydney Harbour Bridge due to air pollution (Photograph by Jenny Evans/Getty Images)

Let me start by saying the title of this article is not meant as click-bait. Every day we're bombarded with messages that smoking tobacco is bad for you, but how many times have you been told that the so-called “fresh” air you breathe is harmful to your health? Probably never, am I right? Us Aussies tend to live in “health denial”. We never think we're going to get sunburnt when we venture outside without sunscreen or adequate protection, and we certainly don't question the air quality with so many of our cities regularly featuring in the top 10 most liveable cities in the world. And when compared to some other countries in our region, our air quality is generally a lot better, but don't let that give you a false sense of security. It's time to deliver some harsh truths about the air that we breathe, and at the same time reveal that smoking shisha isn't as bad as some portray it to be.

Back in 2015 as part of a scientific study into the air pollution in China, Berkeley Earth drew direct comparisons between air pollution and the equivalent number of cigarettes smoked per day. Professor Richard A. Muller of Berkeley Earth found that air with a PM2.5 level of 22 μg/m3 is as detrimental to one's health as smoking a cigarette a day. To save you googling all that:

  • PM2.5 is the industry term for particulate matter 2.5 microns (microns are one thousandth of a millimetre) or less in diameter, which is the most harmful form of air pollution.
  • 22 μg/m3 means 22 micrograms (micrograms are one millionth of a gram) of particulate matter per cubic metre of air.

To put that into perspective globally, we found the following chart thanks to the Hindustan Times:

Image of air pollution in Indian cities and other international cities compared with cigarettes

So now you're probably thinking “But Australia's air quality would be heaps better than those countries, yeah?”. Well, it depends. The chart above was made using data from a quirky (but accurate) smartphone app called “Sh**t! I Smoke”, which allows users to search specific locations and the app converts the live air quality (PM2.5 level) into the equivalent number of cigarettes per day. Here are some of the readings that we saw when we randomly searched certain Australian locations over the summer:

Image of air pollution in Australian cities compared with cigarettes

And here's a Channel 7 News infographic for Sydney and surrounding regions:

Image of air pollution in Sydney and surrounding regions compared with cigarettes

These random, isolated readings may be a lot higher than the annual average for these locations, but it just goes to show how something we take for granted (clean air) can cause a lot more damage to our health than the conscious decision to smoke cigarettes.

So far we've compared Australian air pollution to smoking cigarettes, but how does it compare to smoking shisha from a water-filtered hookah pipe? Scientific studies have been performed that loosely compare the PM2.5 levels at public venues that allow shisha smoking against public venues that only allow cigarette smoking. While the results came back quite even between shisha and cigarettes, these studies failed to examine the quantity of tobacco smoked (among other variables like ventilation, venue volume, number of patrons etc.), and therefore the studies are basically useless. Had the studies factored in the quantity of tobacco consumed, they would have found that the water-filtration system of a hookah pipe is far superior in filtering out PM2.5 when compared to the cellulose acetate fibre filters typically found in cigarettes. What that means is if we were to smoke the same quantity of tobacco that's found in a single cigarette, but instead using a water-filtered shisha pipe we would find that the PM2.5 levels would be a lot less than that of a cigarette (22 μg/m3).

So if you're a person who is worried about the health risks of smoking shisha or even cigarettes, perhaps it's time to start worrying a bit more about every breath of air you take, as the latter can be a lot worse in the current climate.

If you're interested in the differences between smoking cigarettes and shisha tobacco you can read more in one of our previous blog articles: Is shisha better than cigarettes?

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