Last updated on 21/09/2020

Bushfire inquiries put new national health campaign on the air-genda

At a time when bushfire smoke, drought and dust storms have seen air quality plummet and health impacts rise, the call for a new national health campaign to help protect Australians breathing in unhealthy air has been placed on the agenda.

Three major bushfire inquiries including two in New South Wales and interim observations by the Royal Commission, have called upon the need for an air-smart public education campaign to be put top of the bushfire reform agenda, to address the health risks associated with exposure to poor air quality caused by bushfire smoke, drought and other sources.

Much like the Cancer Council’s SunSmart Slip, Slop, Slap campaign which kicked off back in 1981, Asthma Australia is seeking support for a similar catchy campaign called AirSmart.

Asthma Australia says support for an AirSmart public education campaign is gaining pace, but the peak health group is urging governments to work together.

“We must take a national view on this. We live in a country where extreme weather and disasters are part of our lives. We have the added risk of breathing in harmful particles in the air from dust storms, bushfire smoke and other sources like ozone or emissions. For some of us, like people with asthma, this is very dangerous, even life-threatening.

“It’s imperative we act now on AirSmart, to boost community understanding on interpreting air quality information and things to do to protect ourselves.”

Following yesterday’s release of the NSW Inquiry Report looking into the health impacts of bushfires and drought, the Committee made it clear that governments are responsible for acting on well accepted evidence linking exposure to poor air quality with poor health, and that current air quality information, data, monitoring standards and associated public health advice are not protecting our community from the harms of unhealthy air, particularly those people who are most vulnerable or disadvantaged.

Among those at higher risk of poor health outcomes due to exposure of to reduced air quality, particularly when there are which sees higher concentrations of small particulate matter (PM2.5) in the air, are the one in nine Australians with asthma.

Evidence presented to the Committee by NSW Health has revealed a 25% increase in emergency department presentations for asthma between 5 to 11 December last year when PM2.5 levels were well beyond the baseline level considered as hazardous.

“There is no safe level of exposure to PM2.5, it is bad of for us full stop,” added Ms Goldman.

“What we need is printed in black and white in the report, government’s now need to act on those recommendations.”

Air quality expert Associate Professor Fay Johnston from the University of Tasmania quoted in the NSW Inquiry Report into the health impacts of bushfires and drought said “A lot of the health impacts occur at lower levels of air quality. That is very important, that there is no safe lower threshold. Managing the very extreme days will not help us avert the impacts of bushfire smoke pollution in Australia.”