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More than 400 deaths, 4,400 hospitalisations linked to bushfire smoke effects

Dominic Giannini 25 March 2020 15
Parliament House during the bushfires

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

A summer marked by hazardous air quality and bushfire smoke may have cost 31 Canberrans their lives, according to a new study published in the Medical Journal of Australia.

The study did not analyse pre-existing conditions but measured what public health experts describe as “excess deaths”, or the factor by which observed mortality rates exceed expected mortality rates when major risks like heatwaves, bushfires, pandemics, famine or war are present.

The study estimated that in the ACT, 229 people were admitted to hospital – 82 for cardiovascular problems, and 147 for respiratory problems – while 89 people attended the emergency department because of asthma-related issues.

There were a total of 417 estimated excess deaths because of the bushfire smoke and 4,456 hospitalisations and emergency department visits across NSW, Queensland, Victoria and the ACT.

NSW was the worst-affected state, carrying more than 50 per cent of the burden after most of the state was ravaged by bushfires, some of which started as early as July.

Between October 2019 and February 2020, the concentration of PM2.5 – fine particles that irritate the respiratory system – exceeding the 95th percentage of historical daily averages was recorded by at least one air-quality monitoring station on 94 per cent of days.

More than a third of Canberra’s summer was spent with air quality levels above hazardous as bushfire smoke blanketed the ACT. Canberra regularly had the world’s worst air quality levels on days throughout the 2020 bushfires.

The air quality in Canberra reached 22 times the hazardous threshold on New Year’s Day, dragged across from the South Coast by unrelenting easterlies.

Australian-American Memorial in Russell

Smoke obscuring the Australian-American Memorial in Russell. Photo: Region Media.

Leading environmental health expert from ANU, Professor Sotiris Vardoulakis, said that studies are yet to conclude what constitutes long-term exposure to particulate matter but there is no safe level of exposure to bushfire smoke.

“Bushfire smoke is a major public health concern. These very small particles in bushfire smoke can penetrate deep into the respiratory system inducing inflammation and even translocate into the bloodstream,” Professor Vardoulakis said.

“Mortality rates have been found to increase in Sydney on days with high bushfire smoke pollution.

“For most people, it [was] like smoking a few cigarettes a day – it increas[ed] the risk of developing lung and heart disease in their lifetime.”

The report also found that stronger bushfire mitigation and adaption techniques were urgently needed to help lessen the impacts and severity of future fires which are made worse because of widespread drought and heatwaves across Australia.


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15 Responses to More than 400 deaths, 4,400 hospitalisations linked to bushfire smoke effects
Karen Feng Karen Feng 6:00 pm 26 Mar 20

the only injury i sustain is to my wallet cause i have to use seretide and buy expensive masks. I should consider myself lucky. no permanent damage and im still alive.

Chan Phoenix Chan Phoenix 10:05 am 26 Mar 20

From bushfires, flood, dying animal carcasses, huge hailstones, now COVID-19 and Centrelink crashes, what's next after lockdown.

    Karen Feng Karen Feng 6:03 pm 26 Mar 20

    Chan Phoenix a new planet of the apes movie. someone show me a video of an orangutan washing his hands. so if the virus escalates after lock down. everyone might die and the apes live. i have no idea who is left to see "planet of the apes"

Alana Bing Alana Bing 9:17 pm 25 Mar 20

My family and I have damaged lungs from living in Malua Bay everyday for months we breathed in smoke and we copped a direct hit on NYE when we had to flee to the beach , then every time the wind would blow it would bring ash and toxins from the debris of the burnt houses etc! We've been sick ever since!!!

Kirti Prasad Kirti Prasad 8:37 pm 25 Mar 20

Ashwani Devi Prasad this year is a collective nightmare we’re all trapped in

Allison Catanzariti Allison Catanzariti 6:22 pm 25 Mar 20

2020 SUCKS

Jenny Bolin Jenny Bolin 6:08 pm 25 Mar 20

I had a phone call in January from my respiratory physician regarding participating in a survey, I was out of the running though because I had been taking both antibiotics and prednisone up until Christmas!

Danielle Smith Danielle Smith 5:13 pm 25 Mar 20

Mother nature seems to be cross with her children...

Ursula Gamal Ursula Gamal 4:21 pm 25 Mar 20

True, and pet animals were affected too.

Kerri Hallas Kerri Hallas 4:07 pm 25 Mar 20

I wonder how many more people will suffer front CV19 because their lungs have been compromised from the smoke?

Jessy Watson Jessy Watson 3:21 pm 25 Mar 20

I never want to see that smoke that bad again in Canberra

Brad Mann Brad Mann 2:14 pm 25 Mar 20

There is Nothing People can do wen you have Smoke like that

Capital Retro Capital Retro 10:31 am 25 Mar 20

Given these claims (I really don’t believe them) more people died from bushfire smoke than will probably die from the coronavirus pandemic.

    JC JC 7:13 am 26 Mar 20

    You are delusional if you think COVID-19 is going to cause less deaths than 400.

    Capital Retro Capital Retro 7:39 am 27 Mar 20

    I am not delusional – we are only comparing NSW, Queensland, Victoria and the ACT.

    A lot of the coronavirus deaths are happening in WA thanks to the stupidity of NSW regarding the Ruby Princess debacle.

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