Croakey is closed for summer holidays and will resume publishing in the week of 18 January 2021. In the meantime, we are re-publishing some of our top articles from 2020.
This article was first published on January 14, 2020
Introduction by Croakey: Despite multiple warnings from health groups and experts of a looming bushfire crisis, governments have seemed woefully unprepared for this season’s events.
It is not only the absence of the Prime Minister and several senior Ministers during the early days of the bushfires that has raised community concern. It is also the lack of timely and clear advice from health authorities on the health risks, a shortage of essential equipment and the apparent failure to have any plan in place to deal with the predictable impacts of widespread fire activity.
The Climate and Health Alliance has released the statement below identifying a number of areas in which government should be taking action.
In particular, CAHA Executive Director Fiona Armstrong calls below for an extension of the supply of free P2 masks, ‘strong and consistent’ advice to the public and clear information for councils, schools, childcare centres and workplaces with high numbers of outdoor workers.
For expert information on the health impacts of bushfire smoke, follow respiratory medicine physician Professor Guy Marks, @Marks1Guy, who is tweeting from Croakey’s @WePublicHealth account this week covering air quality and lung health issues.
Fiona Armstrong writes:
People continuing to work, exercise and move around outdoors without appropriate protection during ‘hazardous’ levels of air pollution from bushfire smoke exposes the need for governments to do more to protect people’s health.
The Climate and Health Alliance has called for a whole of government response to the health risks posed by bushfire smoke air pollution, including the possibility of text alerts and the supply of free P2/N95 face masks to all affected communities.
There is no safe level of air pollution. The higher the level of pollution, the more hazardous the risks to people’s health, yet many people are unaware of these risks or what to do about them.
Months of polluted air
For months now the climate-fuelled bushfire crisis has blanketed communities in dangerous air pollution, putting at risk the health of millions of Australians.
The smoke is believed to have directly contributed to the deaths of two people, and our health system is hard at work responding to more and more people who are experiencing ill-health from the high levels of air pollution.
Despite decades of warnings on the consequences of climate change on people’s health and the devastating bushfires burning for months now, governments are lagging behind on responding to this climate health emergency, leaving members of the public in the dark as to the health risks and appropriate response.
This includes refraining from exercising outside, where possible remaining indoors, keeping windows and doors closed and using high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) cleaners or filtered air conditioners, and wearing a properly-fitted P2 or N95 face mask while outdoors.
People who are unable to access clean air indoors and who are particularly susceptible to bushfire smoke should consider staying with a friend or relative whose house has clean indoor air or, if possible, leaving the area for a cleaner environment.
Strong and consistent advice needed
Governments must do everything they can to help protect people from bushfire smoke. This includes providing strong, consistent advice to members of the public so they are properly informed on how to best protect their health.
Governments should urgently investigate the possibility of text alerts conveying health advice to areas where people are at risk of being exposed to high levels of air pollution.
Governments should also issue advice to councils, schools, childcare centres and workplaces with high numbers of outdoor workers so they are aware of their responsibilities to the people under their care or employment.
While the Federal Government has recently provided hundreds of thousands of P2 face masks to some affected communities, millions more Australians being exposed to bushfire smoke are currently without appropriate protection.
The government must extend its provision of free P2 face masks to all affected communities as soon as possible.
This immediate crisis demands these measures as an immediate response. However, without action on climate change, the health impacts of future bushfires and air pollution will only become more severe.
As global temperatures continue to increase, we will see more and more heatwaves, bushfires, and smoke haze. We must take urgent action to reduce our contribution to climate change if we are to preserve our health, landscape and wildlife from further devastating impacts.
The Australian Government must no longer ignore the warnings of climate and bushfire experts. It must ensure strong and urgent climate action is part of the response to the bushfire crisis.
Health impacts of air pollution
Air pollution is linked to diseases throughout life: including cardiac arrest, premature births, low birth weight babies, impaired lung development in children, asthma, heart disease, stroke, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and lung cancer.
Babies, young children and those who are elderly or already experience heart or lung disease are at higher risk, as are those who may not have access to air conditioning or air purifiers.
Click here to see Croakey’s coverage of the 2019-2020 climate bushfire crisis.