Last updated on 01/11/2019

A new study has confirmed bushfire smoke is toxic for causing asthma attacks, with women and those aged over 65 most vulnerable.

Asthma Australia is urging all governments to strengthen Australia’s bushfire smoke monitoring and communications systems to reduce public health impacts.

CEO of Asthma Australia Michele Goldman says it is imperative governments act now ahead of bushfire season.

“One in nine or 2.7 million people have asthma in Australia, and many others with respiratory disease and cardiac disease are also at risk,” Ms Goldman said.

“This new evidence confirms what we’ve learnt over the years: that people with asthma are extremely vulnerable to bushfire smoke.”

The study titled ‘Association between fire smoke fine particulate matter and asthma-related outcomes: systematic review and meta-analysis’ was supported by Asthma Australia and published in Environmental Research led by University of Tasmania’s Nicolas Borchers-Arriagada from the Menzies Institute for Medical Research.

Mr Arriagada says: “We found that exposure to bushfire smoke PM2.5 resulted in considerablyhigher asthma-related effects, compared to those seen when exposed to a typical PM2.5 mixture, usually found in urban areas. Women and elders were the most vulnerable groups, and therefore there is a need to adequately assess and implement strategies that aim at reducing asthma-relatedpublic health impacts.”

Females and all adults over 65 years with asthma had a positive link to experiencing serious asthma symptoms requiring Emergency Department visits and hospitalisation; risk increasing with age.

The research reveals that the short-term impacts of bushfire smoke exposure is considered much worse for people with asthma than regular urban pollution.

Ms Goldman references an Asthma Australia survey undertaken in Sydney earlier this year following hazard reduction burns which reports 81% of people had trouble breathing because of poor and hazardous air quality caused from smoke.

“The smoke inundation caused 19% of people to experience an asthma emergency. The scary part is, most people weren’t aware smoke was even around until they got asthma or physically saw or smeltit in the air,” she said.

She said that with the abundance of wildfires and hazard reduction burns that take place in Australia, it was imperative governments invest in public health measures to reduce these impacts.

“These measures include bushfire management and alternative approaches to fuel reduction, improved communications systems and targeted public health protection,” Ms Goldman explained.

Forty-seven-year-old Julia Ovens who lives in Melbourne has severe asthma and says that better systems to help her manage her exposure to bushfire smoke, would make a significant difference to her health.

“It’s a terrifying experience,” says Mrs Ovens.

“Even when medicated, bushfire smoke can cause significant health complications for me, for long periods. Not only does it make me seriously unwell, but it creates a great deal of stress and anxiety for me,” she says.

Julia Ovens has been through some devastating fire events defining Australian history including Ash Wednesday, Black Saturday and the Hazelwood mine fires. Julia says the smoke is just as life threatening to her because of her asthma.

“It’s difficult to track where smoke is coming from. It can travel over 50km depending on wind. A fire which isn’t directly near me can still be a huge risk to me,” she added.

Ms Goldman said Australia has the means to better track and monitor smoke.

“Supported by this new evidence, Asthma Australia is looking forward to working with authorities to get a stronger system up and running. We hope to minimise the impact of these events on people like Julia whose life hangs in the balance.”

She said people could help their local communities by being more aware and responsive to people with asthma.

This bushfire season, workplaces and schools can support people with asthma by making plans to avoid smoke exposure in the event of a fire and knowing how to administer Asthma First Aid.

For people with asthma, the best protection is to remain vigilant of bushfires or controlled burns occurring within a 50km proximity of your location; use your preventer medication as prescribed andif you don’t have one, it is recommended to discuss your need for preventer medicine with yourdoctor as soon as possible if you experience symptoms when exposed to smoke. People should also avoid smoke exposure wherever possible; and keep an in-date reliever puffer on hand in the event of an asthma attack; and respond as per your Asthma Action Plan.

For more information on how to manage smoke exposure, visit the Asthma Australia website on or call 1800 ASTHMA.


About the research:

Authors conducted a systematic review and meta-analysis to estimate the association between short-term exposure to landscape fire smoke particulate matter (PM2.5) and asthma-related outcomes. PM2.5 refers to particles or particulate matter with a diameter less than 2.5 micrometers, which is about 30 times smaller than a human hair. These small particles can penetrate deep into the lungs and cause irritation and reduce lung function. Four databases and reference lists of recent fire smoke and health reviews were searched. Twenty studies (international and Australian) were included for quantitative assessment and descriptive analysis. Summary estimates were obtained for hospitalisations and emergency department visits. A descriptive analysis was conducted for physician visits, medication use and salbutamol dispensations.

Reference: Borchers Arriagada, N, Horsley, JA, Palmer, AJ, Morgan, GG, Tham, R & Johnston, FH2019, ‘Association between fire smoke fine particulate matter and asthma-related outcomes: Systematic review and meta-analysis’, Environmental Research, vol. 179, no. 1.

More insights into smoke impacts:

In May 2019, Asthma Australia undertook a one-week survey of 554 people living in the greater Sydney region about the impacts of recent hazard reduction burn smoke on their asthma titled‘Sydney Smoke Impact Survey’. The survey revealed 62% of people found out about smoke in the air when they got asthma symptoms or saw or smelt smoke in the air. Nearly all people experienced asthma symptoms from smoke. Please view the results here.

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