Smoke and the limits of livability


Bushfire smoke at Parliament House, Canberra. Image by Simon Troman.
Bushfire smoke at Parliament House, Canberra. Image by Simon Troman.

Governments have been urged to act on health fallout from bushfire smoke in a new international report

Australia will face recurring episodes of widespread bushfire smoke and its associated health impacts unless governments tackle climate change and support communities and health systems to respond, according to an international report released 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.

The disastrous 2019-20 Australian bushfire season saw distressed people seeking out face masks from pharmacies, a spike in asthma inhaler sales, a call for community pharmacy to be included in disaster planning, and tales of heroism from pharmacists in affected areas.

The new 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 said she saw the harm of bushfire smoke firsthand.

“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. 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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