SYDNEY • Breathing masks are selling out in Sydney, with the city enveloped in the smoke from bush fires sweeping across a large swathe of Australia's east coast, damaging the country's clean and green reputation.
Office workers wearing protective masks, previously a rarity, have become a common sight in recent weeks in Sydney, where record pollution levels have consistently ranked the city above the likes of Jakarta, Shanghai and Mumbai.
The world-famous Opera House and Harbour Bridge have regularly been shrouded by thick smoke that has turned the daytime sky a dark orange. Ash has fallen like a shroud over the sky, propelled by strong winds from the fires burning on the outskirts of greater Sydney.
State health officials have warned people with respiratory conditions to stay inside as much as possible, but health experts said that advice is not a good enough response given the crisis has now been running for weeks.
"It breaks my heart when I see my patients because they are like my family, and when I see that they are being punished by the smoke and heat, I have felt powerless," family doctor Kim Loo told protesters at a rally outside Prime Minister Scott Morrison's Sydney residence on Thursday.
Bunnings Warehouse, one of Australia's largest retailers, said some of its stores have run out of breathing masks amid warnings that the smoke pollution could impact lung function and lead to the development of respiratory diseases.
Mr Morrison's conservative Liberal-National coalition govern-ment has come under sustained pressure to defend its climate change policies as it has downplayed links to the unprecedented early arrival and severity of this year's bush fire season.
"Australia's reputation as clean and green has been a major contributor to luring tourists," said Dr David Beirman, senior lecturer in tourism at the University of Technology in Sydney. "The longer this crisis goes on, the more damage it will have to that image and potentially on tourism."
Medical experts said the health damage to both locals and tourists could be long-running and difficult to immediately diagnose.
"When air pollution is short, it is easy to tell people, give people advice about how to avoid it, stay indoors, avoid physical activity," said Mr Edward Jegasothy, an expert at the University of Sydney's school of public health. "But when it is sustained over a number of days or weeks, then the messaging becomes more complicated."