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  • Writer's picture2022 Global Voices Fellow

Protecting Vulnerable Australians from the Physiological Impacts of Prolonged Bushfire Smoke

By Rachael Ryan, Curtin University, WHA, 2021

Rachael is studying a Master of Sustainability and Climate Emergency at Curtin University. Her policy paper is about Protecting Vulnerable Australians from the Physiological Impacts of Prolonged Bushfire Smoke.

Executive Summary

In the summer of 2019-20, a catastrophic Australian bushfire season colloquially known as the ‘Black Summer’, exposed 80 percent of the population to extreme levels of air pollution for weeks (Rajagopalan & Goodman, 2021; Bott & Fastenrath, 2020). Smoke particles from 19 weeks of continuous fires led to more than 400 excess deaths, 4000 hospitalisations and cost the healthcare system $1.95 billion (Johnston, et al 2021). The number of people killed from poor air quality eclipsed those killed by the bushfires themselves by more than a factor of ten (Arriagada et al, 2020). Bushfire smoke with a fine particulate matter (PM) diameter of less than 2.5 micrometers (μm), also known as PM2.5, can penetrate the respiratory system and bloodstream, leading to tissue damage and inflammation and posing a major public health concern (Vardoulakis et al, 2020).

Climate change is already causing longer and hotter summers; increasing the frequency of drought, extreme heat events, and fire weather and exacerbating the need to conduct hazard reduction burns (Hunter, 2021). The recent Royal Commission into bushfires confirmed that Australia’s severe 2019- 20 bushfire season was predicted and warned that it will be repeated in the future (Wahlquist, 2020). This is because as the impacts from climate change become more apparent, droughts will become longer and catastrophic weather events that lead to Black Summer will become more frequent (IPCC, 2018). While the long-term health impacts of bushfire smoke are not yet known, the clear link between smoke events and negative health implications demonstrate the need for strategies to minimize pollutant exposure (Walter et al, 2020; Rajagopalan & Goodman, 2021). The Australian government needs to do more to protect vulnerable Australians from the impact of prolonged bushfire smoke. This paper explores effective policy solutions including subsidising building envelope testing and sealing, making evidence-based air purifiers more accessible to asthma sufferers as well as a national bushfire pollution health campaign to support health-based decision-making during smoke events. These measures will reduce the burden on Australia’s health care system during future smoke events.

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