The true health impact of this summer’s ferocious bushfires may not be felt for years to come, as experts warn fire-related deaths may just be the beginning.
The true health impact of this summer’s ferocious bushfires may not be felt for years to come, as experts warn fire-related deaths may just be the beginning.

Bushfires may have devastating long-term health impact

The full impact of last summer's devastating bushfires on Victorians health may not be felt for years to come, or ever completely recorded.

Already at least 120 Victorian deaths have been linked to the immediate effects of smoke blanketing the state inhalation from January's bushfires, however health experts warn the long-term impact could be far greater.

The Royal Commission into National Natural Disaster Arrangements this week heard Menzies Institute for Medical Research had linked 445 deaths across the nation to smoke from the bushfire season.

But while the bushfires' immediate consequences have already been disastrous, Royal Melbourne Hospital respiratory physician Assoc Prof Daniel Steinfort warned the longer-term "hidden health problems" may be an even bigger concern in areas with the longest sustained exposure to smoke pollution.

"There are people who will likely have health consequences for years to come and a lot of those won't be attributable to the fire on an individual basis," he said.

"But we know for populations of people who were exposed to high levels of pollution there are significantly greater rates of cardiac disease, of cancer and of other issues which are much harder to track."

Smoke from the bushfires caused thick haze in Melbourne’s CBD. Picture: Jake Nowakowski
Smoke from the bushfires caused thick haze in Melbourne’s CBD. Picture: Jake Nowakowski

An Andrews Government spokeswoman told the Herald Sun hospital presentations for respiratory illness jumped by about 30 per cent in January and February, when there was significant bushfire smoke in the atmosphere.

The situation was made even worse in March when coronavirus ramped up and respiratory presentations more than doubled.

"We don't have any data at this stage linking extra deaths or admissions for heart and lung problems with bushfire smoke," she said.

Assoc Prof Daniel Steinfort said Melburnians were largely able to avoid severe damage by staying indoors because the city's smoke coverage was not as prolonged as other areas, however the impact on Victoria's wider health system was unprecedented.

"There was a very large increase in presentations to GPs and ambulance call outs, particularly for asthma and emphysema," Assoc Prof Steinfort said.

"We haven't seen this as a regular event in association with bushfires. This is the first one where the effect on health systems was so noticeable, just because of the scale and the protracted period that the fires burnt for.

"With bushfires, a lot of the particles are incredibly small, to the point where they are actually able to enter the bloodstream and you then see systemic effects such as increased rate of heart attacks, increased rate of infections even away from the lungs."

Originally published as Bushfires may have devastating long-term health impact


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