Life Wellbeing Bushfire crisis highlights ‘urgent need’ for national action on air pollution
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Bushfire crisis highlights ‘urgent need’ for national action on air pollution

Bushfire smoke has been linked to a spike in deaths, with heath experts calling for a national response. Photo: Getty
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Australia’s ‘black summer’ has seen bushfire smoke circle the globe, and major population centres engulfed by toxic haze for weeks at a time.

Millions of Australians watched in dismay as their cities topped global air pollution indexes while they learned of the health dangers of fine particulate matter, and rushed out to buy P2 face masks.

Air pollution can kill, and toxic bushfire smoke has shown no regard for state borders.

So why does Australia still lack a national body dedicated to tackling the issue?

It’s a question many have been asking, even while the Prime Minister Scott Morrison downplayed concerns, and later had air purifiers installed at Kirribilli House.

Now, health experts have warned of an “urgent need” for a “national health protection strategy” to address the issue.

“More nuanced health advice is needed to protect populations and individuals from exposure to bushfire smoke,” Australian National University Professor of Global Environmental Health Sotiris Vardoulakis and colleagues wrote in the Medical Journal of Australia on Monday.

Major cities have been blanketed by toxic bushfire smoke. Photo: AAP

“It is important that health professionals and patients, as well as healthy individuals and those at higher risk, develop a good understanding of the available health protection measures and their effectiveness and potential trade-offs.”

The researchers called for “an independent national expert committee on air pollution and health protection to be established to support environmental health decision making in Australia”.

The committee should “have a clear mandate and resources to develop evidence-based, accurate, practical and consistent advice on health protection against bushfire smoke, and air pollution more broadly, across jurisdictions”.

Bushfire smoke linked to spike in deaths

The 2019-20 bushfire season saw Sydney, Canberra, Melbourne and other major population centres blanketed in smoke for extended periods of time.

“The length and density of smoke exposure is a new and possibly fatal health risk that many within our community have not previously had to face,” Australian Medical Association president Tony Bartone warned in January.

With denser smoke haze and longer periods that people endure smoke inhalation, there is a much higher risk that previously healthy people will face developing serious illness.’’

On Monday, Professor Vardoulakis and colleagues described Australian population’s exposure to “atmospheric particulate matter (PM) with a diameter < 2.5 μm (PM2.5)” as a “major concern”.

Mortality rates have been found to increase in Sydney on days with high bushfire smoke pollution,’’ the researchers wrote.

“Hospital admissions, emergency department attendances, ambulance callouts and GP consultations, particularly for respiratory conditions, all increase during periods of severe PM2.5 from bushfires.”

These tiny particles can “penetrate deep into the respiratory system, inducing oxidative stress and inflammation” and can “even translocate into the bloodstream”, increasing the risk of cancer.

Short-term measures inadequate

Even short-term exposure to hazardous levels of smoke can be dangerous. Photo: AAP

Current advice “mainly focuses on shorter and more localised smoke episodes” that are inadequate in the face of extreme and extended bushfire seasons.

People have been instructed to limit their personal exposure to pollution by staying indoors with windows and doors closed, and reduce strenuous physical exercise outdoors.

This is “impractical” over the longer periods of high PM2.5 levels such as those experienced over the past summer, Professor Vardoulakis and colleagues wrote.

‘Inconsistencies’ between states on air quality advice

The researchers also pointed to “inconsistencies” between states and other jurisdictions over the way in which air quality was measured and communicated.

“More nuanced advice would encourage individuals to be guided by location-specific air quality forecasts and the pattern of hourly PM2.5 concentrations at nearby air quality monitoring locations, and to plan their daily activities in ways that minimise exposure to pollution,” they wrote.

“For example, PM2.5 was lower in most locations in Sydney in early morning hours during the December 2019 bushfire smoke episode.

“Exercising outdoors and cycling or walking to school or work within this time window would help maintain good physical activity levels without substantially increasing exposure to smoke.”

Real-time information on “the temporal and spatial variation of air pollution in all jurisdictions” should be made available online and through other media to “enable individuals to assess nearby air quality”, the researchers wrote.

Consistency of air quality information and related public health advice across jurisdictions is essential.’’

Further research into the “longer-term effects of smoke pollution, as well as the effectiveness of related health protection advice” is also needed, they said, alongside “ambitious climate change mitigation targets” that are “an essential long-term strategy for managing the underlying causes of the increasing bushfire risk in Australia”.

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