Beyond the Bushfires - what is the health impact of Australia's mega fires?

Jan 20 2020

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The bushfires which have been raging across Australia since October 2019 have devastated communities, impacted air quality across vast areas, destroyed wildlife and bushland on a scale not previously recorded.

Whilst, quite rightly, there is much focus on the immediate term response to these disasters, at HMRI we are looking to the wider impacts on populations directly and indirectly affected.

From the devastating loss of life, wildlife and bushland, to the heartwrenching loss of homes and businesses, the impacts will be ongoing. Bushfires have also generated a long-term health issue with smoke causing health problems across the nation and the impact on mental health is far reaching for those suffering loss and the general public

It’s a national crisis, and as it’s unlikely to be an isolated case, we need to be proactive in addressing the health issues.

A team of HMRI researchers have come together to form an expert working group to explore what needs to be done long-term, and to call on the public for their input and engagement in informing our work. From mental health to respiratory health, we are keen to take our existing knowledge and apply it to this problem and investigate further to find solutions where we don’t have the answers.

But we need your help.

  • We want to know “How have the bushfires impact your health: physically and mentally?”
  • What are your concerns and questions about the impacts and what you can do to alleviate the symptoms or protect yourselves?

We’ll be taking questions from the public and asking our experts for their advice, which we’ll be sharing on Facebook and our website.

So please, tell us, how have the bushfires impacted you?

We have asked our expert researchers to provide their insight on your questions. Do you have a question, we haven't answered yet? Email us at communications@hmri.org.au and let us know.

Your Bushfire Health Related Questions & Answers

Why is bushfire smoke (BFS) particularly challenging for our respiratory system? Why are the particulates involved so challenging?

Associate Professor Nathan Bartlett, Head of Viral Immunology and Respiratory Disease group at HMRI

Any particulates (including BFS) that are generated by the combustion of fuel that penetrate the lung will negatively impact health. There is some debate over whether BFS is as bad as typical city air pollution or cigarettes – but this is more of an issue of concentration and duration of exposure. Living in a city like Beijing and/or smoking a pack of cigarettes a day for 10 years is undoubtedly worse for your health than acute exposure to BFS.

That said the acute (or not so short term….) effects of BSF are still clinically significant causing irritation to exposed mucosal surfaces such as eyes, throat and lungs. And these effects will be more significant for individuals with pre-existing conditions affecting these parts of the body.

How can existing knowledge be translated into health solutions for people suffering with respiratory conditions from bushfire smoke?

The particulate matter in bushfire smoke offers up a whole new challenge to our health as it’s so fine and able to penetrate so much deeper in the lungs which has led to a greater volume of presentations to clinicians of respiratory issues than previously seen or that we know how to treat effectively.

Professor Jodie Simpson’s work into how inflammation can lead to asthma and other respiratory conditions can help her understand what we can do about it – and what therapies and treatments can help bring relief to those in our community who are suffering from bushfire-smoke induced respiratory diseases in the short and long term.  Professor Simpson is looking to translate her research into inflammation and our airways and use it to help deliver better solutions to those impacted by bushfire smoke.



Donate to HMRI to help Professor Simpson and our teams find the answers to these and other health and medical questions presented by the recent bushfires

Can bushfire smoke cause marginal placenta in pregnancy?

Question

I’m currently 23 weeks pregnant, living in Newcastle. I have just been diagnosed with a marginal placenta. From my reading of research, I understand one of the only known risk factors for this is prenatal smoking. I have no personal history of smoking but have been exposed to the bushfire smoke.

Can bushfire smoke cause marginal placenta in pregnancy?

Response from Professor Craig Pennell, Chair in Obstetrics and Gynaecology and Professor of Maternal Fetal Medicine at the University of Newcastle

There is a relationship between chronic smoke exposure and placental development, however,  typically someone needs to either smoke, or be exposed to large amounts of passive smoking to develop placental problems. Placental issues are usually small placentas, or those that age quickly.

A marginal placenta relates to the placental location, or sometimes the cord insertion site. Smoke exposure during the bushfires will not influence the location of your placenta, or the cord insertion site.

I commend you for asking an excellent question, but would like to reassure you that your marginal placenta will not have been caused, or influenced by the recent bushfires

What do we know about the mental health impact on bushfire-impacted communities?

Professor Frances Kay-Lambkin talks about the rise of eco-anxiety and the need for Australians to seek mental health support. She also explains how online approaches can provide mental health support to people who need it.