Health problems caused by the smoke from the Black Summer bushfires were much greater than the health impact of the fires themselves, the royal commission looking into Australia’s preparedness for, and responses to, natural disasters has heard.
On Tuesday, 26 May health experts told the hearing that the fires had affected 80% of the population. They were providing details on both the short- and long-term impacts of bushfires.
The cost to society from smoke alone was around $2-billion, which was four times higher than the second most severe season for bushfire smoke, which occurred in 2002-03.
Deaths from smoke numbered around 445 people and the number of people hospitalised as a result of smoke was more than 4 000.
Small smoke particles trigger an immune response
Associate Professor Fay Johnston, from the Menzies Institute for Medical Research at the University of Tasmania, said that small smoke particles triggered an immune response similar to fighting off an infection. In people with underlying chronic conditions like asthma or heart disease, these could cause serious illness or even death.
“If you’re already at higher risk of a heart attack for whatever reason, then an increase in particles in the air and the changes your body makes in response to that … can cause a cardiac arrest and can cause death,” she explained.
Standardise smoke measurements and health advice
Johnston said one of the most important lessons from the most recent fire season was the need to standardise measurements and health advice for the Australian population. There were often different scales of measurement used in different jurisdictions, she noted.
For example, an asthmatic moving from Sydney to Melbourne would not be able to read the air quality data, she said.
“There is a national standard for various air pollutants, but how that information gets shared with the public and the advice that goes with this varies state by state, and actually varies by a surprising amount.”
The National Bushfire Recovery Agency, which is the only national body tracking the damage, does not include data about Western Australia or the Northern Territory because those states did not receive emergency relief payments.
I think what we can do right now is get better at how we share information about smoke to members of the community,” she said.
Higher risk of suffering mental health problems
Another public health expert, Professor Lisa Gibbs from the University of Melbourne, said those who had lived through a bushfire were at above-average risk of mental health problems. This was particularly true if they had been in danger of losing their lives, knew someone who had died, or they had lost their home.
She added that fire-related trauma could also have long-term effects on children’s performance at school.