Climate Change and Environment
Bushfires create “a serious health emergency”
The health consequences of the bushfires are massive and long term.
The Climate and Health Alliance (CAHA) has called bushfire smoke in NSW “a public health emer-gency” and has called for a whole-of-government response to protect health.
The group recommends measures such as text alerts conveying health advice to areas with high levels of air pollution and the supply of free P2/N95 face masks to 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,” CAHA Executive Director Fiona Armstrong said.
“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.
“Governments should also issue advice to councils, schools, child-care centres and workplaces with high numbers of outdoor workers so they are aware of their responsibilities to the people under their care or employment.”
CAHA members include the NSWNMA, ANMF, Public Health Association of Australia, the Royal Australian College of Physicians, Asthma Australia, Australian Healthcare and Hospitals Association and more than 30 other healthcare organisations.
CAHA says that 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,” said Fiona Armstrong.
“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.”
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 without air conditioning or air purifiers.
The human, financial and ecological costs of bushfires
The fires have burned more than 10 million hectares, killed 28 people, destroyed around 2000 homes and covered Sydney and Melbourne with hazardous smoke.
In early January, the Insurance Council of Australia estimated the damage bill had reached $700 million, but said it expected the cost to rise significantly beyond that.
Wildlife experts say over a billion animals have been killed in the bushfires in NSW alone.
“The loss of life we’ve estimated for NSW is 800 million terrestrial animals, including birds and reptiles. But that figure doesn’t include frogs, fish, bats and invertebrates,” ecologist Prof Chris Dickman from the University of Sydney told the ABC.
“Combining these figures, it is likely well over a billion animals lost.”
Experts say the fires have created risks to a range of factors critical to human survival, wreaked havoc on pollinator species like bees, threatened water security and posed risks to infrastructure.
The costs of previous bushfires have been enormous but will be dwarfed by this summer’s fires. It has been estimated that major Australian bushfires during 1967–2013 resulted in over 8000 direct injuries and 433 direct fatalities, costing approximately $4.7 billion.
However, this estimate did not consider indirect costs, which mainly come from the adverse health effects of bushfire smoke.
According to the US Environmental Protection Agency, the indirect effects of air pollution from bushfires on excess premature deaths and morbidity in the USA during 2008–12 had an estimated cost of $US513 billion.
The recent bushfires have prompted a NSW upper house inquiry into the health impacts of exposure to poor levels of air quality. For more information, you can visit the Legislative Council website.