30 March 2020

ANU researchers launch survey on bushfire smoke effects

| Ian Bushnell
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Parliament House during the bushfires

Smoke blankets Parliament House in January. Photo: Region Media.

New research being undertaken at the ANU into the effects of bushfire smoke on health and wellbeing will be used to help the community and governments prepare for future such events.

Researchers from the ANU College of Health and Medicine are wanting to hear from people in the ACT and surrounds such as Queanbeyan about how the bushfire smoke that blanketed the area over the summer affected them.

They have devised a survey that will identify parts of the community that are at risk of the direct and indirect physical and psychological health effects of bushfire-related air pollution and how they can be best supported.

The survey takes 20 minutes, is open to people aged over 18 years, and closes on 6 April.

The new research effort comes after the Australian Medical Journal published data showing that the smoke may have cost 31 Canberrans their lives and put 229 in hospital.

Research Fellow Dr Rachael Harris said researchers were looking beyond physical health to state of mind and lifestyle.

“We went through really unprecedented times and there was a lot of confusion in people about how they could protect their health but also about how they could continue living their life,” she said.

“It affected every part of our lives. It wasn’t as simple as staying inside. That’s possible for one or two days but not for the period of time we experienced.”

It created a lot of anxiety and people were not sure they were doing the right thing to protect themselves and their families, she said.

The ANU will be working with government agencies and the information would feed into a wide range of policy areas so there could be a multi-faceted approach to preparing and dealing with the next disaster.

“Because this is not a one-off event, these things are going to continue to happen in relation to bushfire but also other climatic events,” Dr Harris said.

Issues raised by the smoke effects include the design of public places such as shopping centres and libraries where people sought to escape the foul air, facilities for people to continue to exercise, and houses which could not keep out the smoke.

Questions include what kind of housing people had during the event.

There was also the scarcity of materials and products to ameliorate the effects of the smoke, from masks to air purifiers.

“Being as prepared as much as we can is going to be incredibly important for our community,” Dr Harris said.

She said that during and immediately after the smoke event many people had questions for which researchers did not have answers, such as the implications for pregnancy, and the researchers hoped to satisfy those queries.

Researchers are keen to hear from all parts of the community to capture a diversity of experiences and views.

The survey results will be published quite quickly but will be part of ongoing research that will also include group interviews.

Further research will also look at areas beyond the ACT such as the South Coast.

For more information, and to take the survey, visit the Bushfire Health Survey website.

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