Unhealthy smoke, survey captures how thousands were hard hit by asthma during black summer

Key points

  • Bushfires produce unhealthy smoke posing a serious risk to the lives of people with asthma
  • No matter what steps people with asthma took during the Black Summer Bushfires, they suffered serious smoke-related health impacts such as needing four times more emergency or hospital care and twice as likely to experience financial stress
  • Asthma Australia is calling for changes to protect people with asthma against impacts of bushfire smoke

A landmark survey by Asthma Australia has captured how thousands of people could not protect themselves against smoke induced asthma attacks during Black Summer Bushfires, calling for changes to protect against smoke impacts on health.

The results of the Bushfire Smoke Impact Survey – ‘Bushfire Smoke; Are you coping? released today, combines the health experiences of more than 12,000 people at the height of the air quality crisis that gripped Australian cities and communities between December 2019 and January 2020.

Asthma Australia CEO Michele Goldman said no matter what steps people with asthma took, they were at risk from smoke induced asthma.

“People with asthma suffered serious smoke-related health impacts needing four times more emergency or hospital care and twice as likely to experience financial stress,” she said.

“Of these, children and young people were twice as likely to need urgent medical attention.

Many people told us they felt scared and remained cooped up inside, unprotected and high at risk of smoke induced asthma attacks.”

The survey revealed, nationally, 94 per cent of respondents with asthma reported symptoms from smoke during the crisis, and 70 per cent of respondents without asthma also reported respiratory difficulties.

Ms Goldman reiterated that bushfires produced unhealthy air posing a serious risk to the lives and wellbeing of people with respiratory conditions like asthma.

“Even at low levels, bushfire smoke can have serious implications on anyone with asthma – the fine particle pollutants in smoke get deep into the lungs and inflames the airways making it difficult to breathe,” Ms Goldman said.

“When exposed to intense smoke pollution over days and weeks, our findings showed even best practice advice did little to protect thousands of people from experiencing serious asthma attacks leaving people in need of steroids, medical or emergency care leading to increased hospitalisations and now attributed to up to 445 deaths.”

The survey data collected by Asthma Australia indicated the main factors that limit the ability of individuals to avoid smoke during the crisis included the lack of relevant information, financial constraints, and ineffective public health messaging – leading to increased reports of fear induced anxiety and depression by people with asthma.

With fire seasons becoming longer and more intense, the health impacts of smoke must become a policy priority for all jurisdictions, particularly for the vulnerable.

“The experiences of people with asthma must be recognised in the responses from all levels of government to the Black Summer Bushfire crisis,” Ms Goldman said.

“It disheartens me to say so, but the reality is this won’t be the last catastrophic bushfire season – we need to ensure all Australians can protect themselves and others from the impact of smoke pollution.

“Australia’s strong response to the coronavirus pandemic, has set us up to expect a stronger public health presence in events like this,” Ms Goldman said.

Ahead of the bushfire season, Asthma Australia is sharing its key tips to minimising the effects of bushfire smoke which include having a written Asthma Action Plan and signing up for fire alerts.

During the air quality crisis, Asthma Australia further advised people with asthma to seek refuge in recycled air conditioning, use a P2 facemask when outside, and consider using a HEPA air purifier at home. The survey showed this was not always achievable depending on living circumstances and income.