Survey gauges health impact of 2019-20 bushfire smoke

By Melissa Coade

August 3, 2021

Skyscrapers in Sydney CBD covered in white thick smoke from the bushfires, 12 October, 2019.
Sydney CBD covered in white thick smoke from the bushfires, 12 October, 2019. (Klara/Adobe)

Smoke from unprecedented summer bushfires of 2019-20 impacted healthy people and also those with underlying health conditions, a new study has found. 

Increasing temperatures and a prolonged drought saw fires rage in November 2019 at the height of what would be a nine-month long extreme weather event. It took until early March 2020 when all fires that had scorched an approximate total of 46 million acres (mostly impacting NSW and Victoria) were either extinguished or contained. 

New research has shown that 15% of Australians exposed to the severe summer bushfires of 2019-20 experienced adverse health impacts in the midst of the natural disaster, in addition to the 400 lives lost as a direct result of the event. 

The survey of 1,000 people in bushfire affected areas of Australia found that 70% of people interviewed had been exposed to bushfire smoke in the summer of 2019-20.

Among people with pre-existing respiratory conditions, such as asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), 60% reported adverse health effects from the bushfires. 

Professor Raina MacIntyre, who led the study said that ‘adverse health effects’ were defined by the research team as having to take medication to alleviate symptoms, visiting a health service due to symptoms, or developing a chest infection within a week of bushfire smoke exposure. 

“Concerningly, 2% of people with respiratory conditions were admitted to hospital as a result of adverse health impacts during this time,” MacIntyre said.

“Among people with chronic lung disease, more than 40% reported using extra reliever inhalers for asthma. 

“People also reported increased use of oral medication including corticosteroids and antibiotics.” 

Those aged over 65 were less likely to report ill-health associated with bushfire smoke, the survey found, with younger people three times more likely to do so.

UNSW’s Professor Guy Marks suggested younger people may be disproportionately represented in the group because they were more likely to go outdoors in smoky conditions.

“It implies messages targeting this age group are needed to make them aware of the potential risks,” Marks said. 

Findings from the survey, conducted by UNSW Sydney’s Kirby Institute and the Woolcock Institute of Medical Research, was published in the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine on Monday.

Professor MacIntyre noted that further investigation was needed to understand the nature of health effects associated with bushfire smoke on people with and without existing lung diseases.

“A limitation of this study was a snapshot in time based on self-report, so more research is needed,” MacIntyre said.

“We are currently conducting a clinical trial of respirator and mask use during bushfire smoke exposure which may further inform future public health responses to bushfires.”


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

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