How much is our health affected by bushfires? A doctor weighs in

Jan 22, 2020
Bushfires have been burning across Australia for months. Source: Getty.

I was recently in Shanghai, China and the atmosphere there looked and smelt like Sydney on a bad bushfire day. At the height of the bushfires, Sydney’s air quality was rated worse than places like New Delhi, Beijing and Shanghai.

As the current bushfire crisis appears unprecedented, it’s difficult to say what the short and medium-term effects may be to our health. In Victoria alone, there was a 50 per cent increase in calls to the ambulance service for breathing difficulties.

We’re no longer experiencing short-term effects, as the bushfires have been raging for weeks. All we can do is extrapolate data from other forms of the pollution to determine what may happen in the long-term. It has been established that significant health effects occur from exposure to what is known as PM 2.5 particles, typically inhaled in all forms of pollution. It has been demonstrated that the smoke from bushfires has the same type of particles and the more prolonged our exposure, the greater probable risk.

Research shows that exposure to any form of air pollution, which includes motor vehicle emissions, bushfires and wood or coal smoke, activates the inflammatory system in our body which is the common denominator for all of our modern medical diseases, including heart disease, cancer, Alzheimer’s disease and osteoporosis.

In the meantime, all I can suggest as a doctor is practicing common sense. As I drive around Sydney, I still see foolish people cycling, jogging and vigorously pushing strollers with a child in tow. I would suggest that until the air clears, if you want to exercise, do so indoors in a well-ventilated environment.

Of course, if you have any acute symptoms it’s vital you consult your doctor or attend your local emergency department. The current bushfire crisis is not a short-term temporary inconvenience, but certainly a national disaster that needs a comprehensive plan including addressing the potential long-term health effects.

IMPORTANT LEGAL INFO This article is of a general nature and FYI only, because it doesn’t take into account your personal health requirements or existing medical conditions. That means it’s not personalised health advice and shouldn’t be relied upon as if it is. Before making a health-related decision, you should work out if the info is appropriate for your situation and get professional medical advice.

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