Health experts: Governments must tackle rising health risk from bushfire smoke

Australia will face recurring episodes of widespread bushfire smoke and its associated negative health impacts unless governments tackle climate change and support communities and health systems to respond, according to an international report released today by the Global Climate and Health Alliance.

The report, The Limits of Livability: The emerging threat of smoke impacts on health from forest fires and climate change, specifies that governments must prepare public health systems to tackle the effects of air pollution from bushfire smoke, which has severe health effects and increases demand on health services. The report uses three case studies of harm to health from bushfires, including Australia’s 2019-20 bushfire season, alongside Canada and Brazil.

Cover of the report

The report finds that bushfire smoke has a range of adverse health effects, especially in unborn babies, children, elderly people and people with existing medical conditions. 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.

Canberra-based cardiologist Dr Arnagretta Hunter saw the harm of bushfire smoke firsthand. "Bushfire smoke affected all of us, from minor eye irritation and cough and shortness of breath, through to infections, hospitalisations and some people who died due to health impacts of the smoke. We simply can't afford to go through another fire season without a public health plan that addresses the impact of smoke," she said.

Executive Director of the Climate and Health Alliance, Fiona Armstrong said, "Bushfires are now more intense, frequent and dangerous in Australia, driven by climate change and associated droughts and heatwaves. The health threat of bushfire smoke is underappreciated but increasing, as large urban populations are exposed to toxic smoke more often and for longer."

"The government must take the major steps required to mitigate climate change, one of the significant drivers of these fires. We also need them to invest in research to better understand its health impacts, and prepare communities and health systems to respond more effectively," said Ms Armstrong.

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Quotes

Canberra cardiologist, Dr Arnagretta Hunter:

"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. That really starts to get to the edge of what you want to go through. If this is what we experience regularly, we will wonder how we can possibly survive and thrive in this environment.

"Bushfire smoke affected all of us, from minor eye irritation and cough and shortness of breath, through to infections, hospitalisations and some people who died due to health impacts of the smoke. Most people had a cough, and most people were a bit short of breath. We simply can't afford to go through another fire season without a public health plan that addresses the impact of smoke.

"The long term impacts of weeks to months of exposure to bushfire smoke are uncertain, however there are many issues that should be investigated including an increasing risk of cancers, lung and cardiovascular disease. 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."

Executive Director of the Climate and Health Alliance, Fiona Armstrong:

"Climate change contributed to the worst bushfires in recorded history in our country, and exposed millions of Australians to hazardous air pollution for months. Climate change is a health emergency, and we must respond accordingly.

"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."

 

Report lead author, Dr. Frances MacGuire said:

"The devastation caused by the 2019-20 bushfires is not just down to the flames but also to the smoke which persisted for weeks and months, not just days, events that were outside of people's lived experience. 

"Health services in vulnerable countries must plan for longer and more intense fire and smoke events, including heat and smoke proofing new hospital buildings and ensuring supply chain flexibility to match increased demand for treatments such as asthma inhalers."

 

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