Australian wildfires spark worrying public health effects

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Australia‘s devastating wildfires are causing serious public health effects, especially for those with underlying lung and heart conditions. Hospitals have also seen an increase in people with anxiety and depression.

According to a WBUR report, the wildfires have burned millions of acres, killing an estimated 1bn animals and two dozen people. Dr Arnagretta Hunter, a cardiologist and member of non-profit Doctors for the Environment, says the country’s east and south coasts, Sydney and capital city Canberra are seeing the most serious health effects.

It’s common for people who have encountered brushfire smoke to experience effects like sore eyes and a scratchy throat, she says. But doctors have also seen an increase in “irritation and exacerbations of lung disease,” she says. People with underlying lung and heart diseases, chronic obstructive pulmonary diseases like emphysema, smoking-related lung diseases and asthma have been more likely to visit their doctor or the hospital, Hunter says. Previous studies show air pollution from wildfires may result in increased mortality over the summer, she says. Plus, Australia is facing one of the hottest summers in the country’s history.

“We have smashed records through December, particularly for the hottest day,” Hunter says. “We know that will also increase mortality and increase hospitalisations, particularly for our vulnerable population of older people with both heart and lung disease.” Doctors think most Australians will be fine, she says, but they’re not sure whether a healthy person who isn’t hospitalised from smoke exposure will “suffer significant long-term effects.” Some studies suggest the general population may see a change in lung function and research programs are investigating this possibility further, she says.

As a cardiologist, Hunter is quoted in the report as saying she thinks about how these periods of heat and air pollution have disrupted one way people maintain their health – exercise routines. She also thinks the smoky skies have caused those living underneath it “at least some transient anxiety,” she says. People feeling concerned about their homes, family and community are common during fires, but she says Australians living through this event are worried about something bigger.

“I think for a lot of people across Australia, we’re really considering the impact climate change may have on our lives now and into the future,” she says, “and that has an unsettling effect on a psychological basis.” Hospitals have seen an increase in people with mental health concerns like anxiety or depression who are struggling to cope with the situation, she says.

Adelaide’s air quality was ranking amongst the worst in the world last week as smoke from the Kangaroo Island bushfires blanketed the city. Adelaide Now reports that the city recorded an Air Quality Index of 168 at about 6.30am, making it the 11th worst city in the world for air quality and pollution in the world at the time.

Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan was the most polluted with an AQI of 417, while Kabul, Afghanistan; Delhi, India; Skopje, North Madedonia; Dhaka, Bangladesh,; Pristina, Kosovo; Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia; Lahore Pakistan; Sarajevo, Bosnia; and Shenyang, China round of the top ten more polluted cities.

South Australia Health warned the smoke “could pose a serious threat to health, particularly for vulnerable people with lung or heart conditions”. SA Health chief public health officer Dr Nicola Spurrier said the combined effects of the recent hot weather and the poor air quality from the bushfires meant people should take extra precautions.

WBUR report

Adelaide Now report

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