A study led by the University of Tasmania’s Menzies Institute for Medical Research has estimated the smoke-related health costs of the 2019/20 fire season, and the previous 19 fire seasons. The research, published in Nature Sustainability, revealed that smoke-related health costs rose to $1.95 billion in 2019–20, with the most impacted states including New South Wales ($1.07 billion), Victoria ($493 million) and Queensland ($224 million). Nicolas Borchers-Arriagada from the University of Tasmania, a co-author on the study, said the findings are an anomaly when compared to the 20 most recent fire seasons.
“The total cost was well above the next highest estimate of $566 million in 2002–03 and more than nine times the median wildfire associated costs for the previous 19 fire seasons of $211 million,” Borchers-Arriagada said. “We estimated that the smoke-related impacts of the most recent fire season included 429 smoke-related premature deaths in addition to 3230 hospital admissions for cardiovascular and respiratory disorders and 1523 emergency attendances for asthma.”
The research used a conservative approach to the modelling and likely underestimates the true burden for different reasons, such as the exclusion of other health outcomes, including mental health. The authors acknowledge this, and that accounting for mental health is crucial in understanding the true burden of the 2019/20 bushfires, especially on workers. For example, the mental impact of reduced productivity and capacity for self-care, which affected a large proportion of Australia’s working population across the season.
Borchers-Arriagada also noted that the smoke from the fires causes extraordinary suffering that has been underestimated and sidelined as a critical management issue. According to Borchers-Arriagada, many survivors of bushfire events are physically and mentally triggered by smoke for the rest of their lives. UNSW Medicine Conjoint Professor Bin Jalaludin, co-author of the research, said these health impacts are often invisible and widespread.
“Often, we can’t directly attribute these deaths to air pollution or smoke — and as a result, we sometimes don’t appreciate the damage that smoke can cause to human health,” Conjoint Professor Jalaludin said. “Furthermore, the smoke was seen to travel to other countries — eg, New Zealand — and even went around the globe,” Conjoint Professor Jalaludin said.
Distinguished Professor Alison Venn, Director of the Menzies Institute, said these findings highlight the importance of the air monitoring app AirRater, developed by Menzies and used throughout Australia during the bushfires. “It is increasingly clear that our bushfire response and preparedness must include smoke-related measures, such as warning apps like AirRater, clean air shelters and air filters in homes and workplaces,” Distinguished Professor Venn said.
Image credit: ©stock.adobe.com/au/Steve Munro