Exploring the long-term health impacts the Australian bushfires

The Academy has published a joint briefing with the Australian Academy of Science on the health impacts of bushfires. ‘After the bushfires: addressing the health impacts’ explores health challenges caused by bushfire smoke or the direct impact of the fires on communities. These include the exposure to air pollutants, strain on mental health, heat stress, as well as other health impacts which need to be better understood.

The briefing highlights that the underlying biological mechanisms for how bushfire smoke causes and exacerbates health issues are poorly understood, which limits our ability to help those affected. Pregnant women, children and infants, people with a disability, people who are homeless, people with pre-existing health conditions and Aboriginal and Torres Straits Islander communities, among others, may be more vulnerable to the health impacts of bushfire.

“Pregnant women tend to breathe at a faster rate, which may make them more vulnerable to smoke exposure. Some research has linked extended exposure to fine particle pollution from fires to unwanted pregnancy outcomes such as pre-term births and lower birth weight, but our understanding of these impacts is currently limited.”

Professor Caroline Homer AO FAHMS, Co-Program Director of Maternal, Child and Adolescent Health, Burnet Institute 

Bushfires impact on both physical and mental health. Some of the common mental health impacts in affected communities include anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder. Impacted communities may also see heightened suicidal risk, increased substance abuse and domestic violence. Heightened levels of anxiety may also cause acute stress in the broader population.

“Overseas data suggest that long-term mental health outcomes from trauma can be considerable. However, appropriate long-term follow-up of Australian first responders is crucial if we are to provide adequate support through the full range of mental health impacts, some of which may not emerge for many years.”

Scientia Professor Helen Christensen AO FASSA FAHMS, Director and Chief Scientist, Black Dog Institute

Targeted strategies, advice, equitable access to information and services is needed to  mitigate the impacts of bushfire smoke while better understanding of the mental health impacts, underlying biological mechanisms and health impacts of prolonged exposure to bushfire smoke, paired with reliable metrics of air quality measurement, can help in better preparing Australia for the climate challenges of the future.

The Academy published an evidence summary on the topic earlier in the year, which was informed by Fellows and other experts. To read more about the Academy’s activities on this topic, visit our bushfires policy page. Most recently the Academy provided oral evidence to the Senate inquiry on the ‘Lessons to be learned in relation to the Australian bushfire season 2019-20’.

AAHMS has published this brief jointly with the Australian Academy of Science, as part of a series they are publishing, drawing attention to important policy areas for action in relation to bushfires. Earlier briefs have included: soil health after bushfires and monitoring wildlife recovery. Future briefs will cover topics including ecosystem services and remote sensing and data availability.

Image credit: Pixabay

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