Australia needs a public health plan to address bushfire smoke impacts, cardiologist says

By Shannon Jenkins

Thursday June 17, 2021

Pollution from bushfire smoke can have severe health effects. (Adobe/TIC)

Governments must prepare public health systems to respond to the severe health effects of air pollution from bushfire smoke, according to a new report.

The report, released on Thursday by the Global Climate and Health Alliance, has explored three case studies of harm to health from bushfires, including Australia’s Black Summer bushfires, and events in Canada and Brazil.

It has argued that preparation, adaptation, and mitigation are needed to protect people from the health risks of smoke, which will increase alongside climate change-fuelled bushfires.

Cardiologist Dr Arnagretta Hunter, from the Australian National University’s Medical School, was interviewed for the report. She said Australia must have a public health plan that addresses the impact of smoke.

“The health effects of the bushfire smoke during Black Summer are evident in published data, and in first-hand experience of Canberra’s thick smoke. You couldn’t go outside, you couldn’t breathe the air, water supplies were disrupted, plants and animals suffered and died,” she said.

“We simply can’t afford to go through another fire season without a public health plan that addresses the impact of smoke.”

The health impacts of air pollution are especially visible in children, the elderly and those with existing chronic medical conditions, the report noted. The most vulnerable populations include those who spend more time outdoors, people aged over 65, and people with asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and cardiovascular disease.

Recent studies have associated bushfire smoke with ambulance callouts for respiratory, cardiovascular and diabetic problems, while exposure to air pollutants has been linked to adverse pregnancy outcomes, including low birthweight.

Hunter noted that the long term health impacts of exposure to bushfire smoke are uncertain, and need to be investigated.

“My biological suspicion is that it can cause fibrosis in some people. We may understand this in five or 10 years if we invest in the appropriate research,” she said.

The risk of bushfires is projected to increase as climate change intensifies, the report has warned.

“Whether a climate change driver, or a consequence of global warming, forest fires now cause episodes of extremely poor air quality that can affect very large populations,” it said.

The bushfire royal commission found that 80% of the Australian population was affected by smoke pollution during the 2019-20 bushfire season. Bushfire smoke caused 429 premature deaths, 3,320 hospital admissions for cardiovascular or respiratory conditions, and 1,523 emergency asthma presentations. The smoke-related health costs over this period was $1.95 billion.

Climate and Health Alliance executive director Fiona Armstrong has urged governments to treat climate change as a health emergency.

“Climate change contributed to the worst bushfires in recorded history in our country, and exposed millions of Australians to hazardous air pollution for months,” she said.

“Australia’s climate policies are far from aligned with the scientific evidence, and the health of Australians is suffering. Prime Minister Scott Morrison must recognise the urgency of the health and environmental emergency, and commit to rapid, ambitious action on climate change.”

The report has made four key recommendations relating to forest protection and management; health risk mitigation and adaptation; health impact data collection and research; and global climate action.

Read more: Think tank wants governments to prepare their health sectors for climate change impacts


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