Professor Sotiris Vardoulakis

Australian National University

Professor Sotiris Vardoulakis heads the Environment, Climate, and Health Research Group in the National Centre for Epidemiology and Population Health at the Australian National University. He is the Director of the NHMRC Healthy Environments and Lives (HEAL) National Research Network. Previously he was Director of Research at the Institute of Occupational Medicine in Edinburgh, and Head of the Environmental Change Department at Public Health England. He has a PhD in air pollution and his work focuses on sustainable solutions to protect human health from climate change, air pollution, temperature extremes, and other environmental and occupational hazards. He led the development of the ANU factsheets on bushfire smoke and health protection. Professor Vardoulakis leads the project and provides expertise in environmental health, air pollution and risk communication.

Professor Fay Johnston

University of Tasmania

Professor Fay Johnston heads the Environmental Health Group in the Menzies Institute for Medical Research at the University of Tasmania. She is also a medical advisor for Public Health Services in the Tasmanian Department of Health. She has specialist qualifications in public health and general practice, and a PhD in environmental epidemiology. Her research focuses on public health and clinical impact of smoke from bushfires and planned burns, long-term health implications of early-life exposure to severe air pollution and interventions to reduce public health impacts of severe smoke episodes. She led the development of AirRater, the world’s first air quality and allergy monitoring system. Professor Johnston co-leads the project and provides expertise in environmental epidemiology, public health, and general practice.

Project Co-Investigators:

Dr Veronica Matthews (University Centre for Rural Health, University of Sydney) – Aboriginal community lead

Professor Karima Laachir (Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies, ANU) – Arab community lead

Professor Bandana Saini (School of Pharmacy, University of Sydney) – Asthma management advice

Dr Penelope Jones (Menzies Institute for Medical Research, University of Tasmania) – Communication and outreach

Dr Ginny Sargent (National Centre for Epidemiology and Population Health, ANU) – Policy engagement

Nicolás Borchers Arriagada (Menzies Institute for Medical Research, University of Tasmania) – Economic analysis

Dr Sharon Campbell (Menzies Institute for Medical Research, University of Tasmania) – Online course development

Dr Erin Walsh (National Centre for Epidemiology and Population Health, ANU) – Visual brokerage and infographics

Project Status: In progress, beginning February 2022


Why was funding this research important?
Air pollution is emitted from many sources, such as bushfires, cars and wood heaters, and affects our health in multiple ways. It can irritate our lungs and airways and triggers symptoms and distress in people with asthma. Air pollution (expressed as fine particulate matter or PM2.5) is associated with approximately 2,600 deaths every year in Australia, corresponding to an average annual economic burden of around $6 billion.

The impact of air pollution was highlighted by the 2019/20 bushfires, with around 10 million Australians exposed to unprecedented levels of bushfire smoke. The smoke alone was responsible for 417 excess deaths, 3,151 hospitalisations for respiratory and cardiovascular problems, and 1,305 presentations to emergency departments with asthma.

This prolonged period of extreme air pollution highlighted the need for clearer, more accessible, practical, and better-targeted air quality and health advice, as highlighted by the Royal Commission into National Natural Disaster Arrangements. Available air quality and health information was not sufficiently user-friendly or nuanced for people with asthma. There were also discrepancies in messaging between agencies and jurisdictions that caused confusion.

The need for accessible air quality information and education on air pollution exposure reduction methods is particularly urgent for population groups which may be at higher risk of developing adverse health outcomes because they are socio-economically marginalized and/or require communication in different languages or from trusted sources, including Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and culturally and linguistically diverse communities.


We are all exposed to air pollution in our daily life, but people with asthma are at higher risk to develop symptoms even at moderate levels of pollution. As highlighted by the Black Summer bushfires and other periods of poor air quality, there remains a critical lack of accessible tools, resources and advice empowering people with asthma to effectively reduce their exposure to air pollution. This project will address this urgent need for practical and culturally appropriate resources that will help people with asthma to breathe cleaner air.”

– Professor Sotiris Vardoulakis


What are the researchers doing?  
In Australia, people with asthma need better tools and advice to help them reduce the amount of air pollution they breathe. This project will address this gap by creating a variety of new, accessible resources to support people with asthma to reduce the amount of air pollution they breathe.

To ensure the best possible advice is provided in the most useful and accessible way, we will:

  • Draw together the best available scientific evidence on which strategies work,
  • Use that evidence to create new communication tools and education resources, and
  • Make those resources available to people with asthma.

Importantly, the project includes extensive consultation with people with asthma to ensure we understand what information people need, and how it is best communicated. We will use focus groups, roundtable discussions and interviews to understand the needs of people with asthma, including consumers from Aboriginal and Arabic speaking communities. We will also target health professionals and policy makers.

We will develop resources that provide accessible and practical advice for reducing the exposure of people with asthma to air pollution. These will specifically include resources targeting:

  • People from Aboriginal and Arabic backgrounds,
  • Health professionals, and
  • Policy makers to stimulate policy action.


This project will directly support people with asthma to take the action they need to protect their health. It also aims to have a system-wide impact by producing outputs designed to influence policy.


“This project will contribute to tangible benefits for people with asthma, particularly those living in bushfire smoke affected and socio-economically marginalised communities. Building on a strong foundation of existing work, we will develop culturally appropriate communication tools and innovative educational materials that resonate with community and health professionals”
-Professor Fay Johnston


The project is led by the Australian National University (National Centre for Epidemiology and Population Health, and Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies), the University of Tasmania (Menzies Institute for Medical Research), and the University of Sydney (University Centre for Rural Health and School of Pharmacy). It is also supported by Dyson.