Summer bushfire smoke caused health problems in two-thirds of people living in parts of NSW

11 June 2020

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AUSTRALIA – Two-thirds of people living in a fire-affected part of New South Wales this summer suffered from at least one symptom of exposure to bushfire smoke, researchers have found.

A survey of people living in the Hunter and New England local health district in December found that 65% reported experiencing at least one symptom of exposure to bushfire smoke, most commonly eye irritation, throat irritation, a cough, a headache, or sneezing.

And only 10% of those who reported feeling unwell due to bushfire smoke went to their doctor or sought medical care.

The survey was issued to 2,400 randomly selected respondents from the Flutracker network, a cohort of 50,000 people across Australia who voluntarily report back on flu symptoms in their household via a weekly email survey.

A one-off survey on smoke was emailed out on 16 December 2019 – two months after the NSW fire season began and while the Hunter region was under threat from several large, ongoing fires – to 1,200 respondents in the Hunter and New England local health district and 1,200 in Hobart. At the time, Hobart was experiencing no or very low levels of bushfire smoke.

Only 16% of respondents in Hobart reported experiencing any symptoms associated with bushfire smoke. Rates of eye and throat irritation were nine times higher in the Hunter region than in Hobart.

When asked, 87.5% of respondents in the Hunter region who experienced symptoms attributed those symptoms to bushfire smoke

A study, published in the journal of Public Health Research and Practice on Thursday, said the low rates of seeking medical advice meant that milder cases of exposure to bushfire smoke were missed by traditional health surveillance systems, such as tracking hospital admissions, meaning “the true health impact of the bushfires is likely to be severely underestimated”.

The royal commission into national natural disaster arrangements last month heard that smoke from the 2019-2020 bushfires caused an estimated 445 deaths and put more than 4,000 people in hospital.

Dr Craig Dalton, a public health physician with the Hunter and New England Local Health District and one of the co-authors of the study, said the longer-term impacts of mild exposure to bushfire smoke were not well known.

Associate Professor Fay Johnston from the University of Tasmania, who gave evidence to the royal commission, was also a co-author.

Dalton said exposure to smoke and research around its health impacts was likely to increase as the prevalence of large bushfires in Australia increased due to climate change.

“If we had a summer like this last summer every second year, it would probably have an impact on chronic health rates,” he said.

Dalton said the potential health impacts of bushfire smoke were dismissed as recently as 20 years ago, because bushfire smoke was “perceived to be natural, and only unnatural toxins were seen to cause harm”.

“But when you look at many of the possible carcinogens in smoke, it doesn’t really matter if it’s natural or unnatural,” he said.

He said there was “public confusion” about how people should protect themselves against bushfire smoke over summer, and the study showed the need for clearer public health campaigns and messages on how to reduce exposure to bushfire smoke.

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