Health alert on burn-offs

 Health alert on burn-offs

25 April 2008

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Australia — Smoke from controlled burns, which has covered Hobart in a haze this week, could be more damaging to humans than car exhaust fumes.

Researcher Fay Johnston has begun a four-year research project comparing the health effects of air pollution from deliberate burn-offs, bushfires and woodheaters.

“There is preliminary evidence that woodsmoke could be worse for people’s health than exhaust pollution,” she said.

“I believe we need to ask whether more stringent rules around burn-offs are necessary simply because of the health effects.”

She found a 50 per cent increase in the number of people needing emergency asthma treatment in Darwin when bushfires produced a noticeable haze over the city.

The Menzies Institute respiratory health researcher and GP expects to find the same thing in Hobart.

“I would have no doubt that when we have a noticeable haze, as we have had this week, that people would have been suffering,” Dr Johnston said.

“Their symptoms get worse, there is more coughing, more of a wheeze.

“You are approaching air quality guidelines when there is a noticeable haze.”

But Dr Johnston, who is doing the study with David Bowman from the University of Tasmania’s school of plant science, is not calling for an end to controlled forestry burns, which reduce the risk of bushfires.

She said the public health damage from out-of-control bushfires was much worse.

But she said Forestry Tasmania, which advertises the locations of its burns every morning, could “do better” and give more notice to people.

Forestry Tasmania fire management manager Tony Blanks said burns were scheduled to minimise public nuisance.

He said Forestry Tasmania often unfairly copped the blame for smoke haze.

“There are a lot of sources of smoke than the forest industry,” Mr Blanks said.

He said farmers had been burning off in the Midlands and the Hobart City Council’s fuel reduction burn at Knocklofty Reserve this week had contributed to the haze over Hobart.

Smoke from fires in Victoria had also reached Tasmania.

Mr Blanks said this week in the South there had been 24 low and high intensity burns consuming more than 1100ha of forest.

The Tasmanian Greens urged people affected by forestry burns to lodge written complaints to the Health and Environment departments and to call the Public and Environmental Health Service hotline on 1800 671 738.

Greens forests spokesman Tim Morris said it was outrageous that Tasmanians were forced indoors to escape polluting smoke haze.

“Year after year people with asthma and other respiratory problems are forced indoors to get away from this state-endorsed smoke pollution, and enough is enough – it must stop,” he said.

“The Greens are inundated with complaints from members of the public who cannot believe that in this day and age they are having to protect themselves and their children, some of whom have pre-existing medical conditions and respiratory problems, from this smoke pollution.”

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