Media release

New research into health impacts of bushfire smoke pollution warrants serious action to address air pollution status quo

March 25, 2020

New research revealing the health impacts of smoke pollution from the catastrophic summer bushfires shows the need for action to address existing air pollution, according law and policy experts at Environmental Justice Australia.

The research led by the University of Tasmania found that prolonged exposure to bushfire smoke this summer caused an estimated 417 premature deaths, 3,151 extra hospitalisations for cardiorespiratory problems and 1,305 additional attendances for asthma attacks.

Nicola Rivers, Director of Advocacy and Research at Environmental Justice Australia said:

“This is a big step in understanding the full health impacts of the bushfires and the need to address Australia’s air pollution problem.”

“It’s critical that state and federal governments address these findings in their inquiries into the bushfires.”

“First and foremost, our governments need to take action to address the dangerous climate change fuelling these bushfires. But they must also take action to reduce the pollution that people are being exposed to now. To reduce the health impacts of the bushfire smoke haze, one of the best things our governments can do is to remove compounding air pollutants and improve everyday air quality.”

State and federal Environment Ministers are due to vote soon on whether to strengthen national air pollution standards for some of the most toxic air pollutants – sulfur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide.

“State and federal governments must put the health of the community first and vote for stricter national air pollution standards that will force state regulators to impose stricter conditions on big polluting sources in order to meet these limits.” said Ms Rivers.

According to the report’s author, Fay Johnson, an epidemiologist at University of Tasmania, many of the deaths and hospitalisations are likely to have been older patients with heart disease or lung problems, such as chronic bronchitis or emphysema – but severe asthma attacks will likely have resulted in deaths in younger people too.

“All Australians, especially our most vulnerable, will benefit from a reduction in air pollution. It will not only reduce the existing health burden which sees over 4000 people die prematurely every year but will make us all more resilient to face crises like the bushfires in future,” Ms Rivers concluded.

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