Urgent need for a national health protection strategy against bushfire smoke

Public health

24 Feb 2020

Lung Foundation Australia has backed calls for an independent national expert committee on air pollution and health protection to be urgently established following the catastrophic bushfire season in Australia.

Australia can’t wait for the results of the Bushfires Royal Commission to act on this vital health issue, according to researchers from the Australian National University (ANU).

In a position paper published in the MJA they call for evidence-based, accurate, practical and consistent advice on health protection against bushfire smoke.

They also stress the need for measures such as national real-time air quality monitoring systems to inform Australians about the ongoing risks of air pollution.

Professor Sotiris Vardoulakis, Professor of Global Environmental Health at ANU said current health protection advice related to bushfire smoke focuses on short-term measures and is “impractical” over the longer periods of high air pollution levels such as those experienced over the summer.

“Telling people to stay indoors or reduce physical activities outdoors isn’t sufficient. Smoke pollution levels vary over hours and days and can change quickly. For this reason, we need hourly averaged particulate air pollution – PM2.5 data – reported in real-time,” he said.

“More nuanced advice would encourage individuals to be guided by location-specific air quality forecasts and the pattern of hourly PM2.5 concentrations at nearby air quality monitoring locations. It would also mean people could better plan their daily activities in ways that minimise exposure to pollution.”

“For example, PM2.5 was lower in most locations in Sydney in early morning hours during the December 2019 bushfire smoke episode. Exercising outdoors and cycling or walking to school or work within this time window would help maintain good physical activity levels without substantially increasing exposure to smoke.”

The paper calls for increased air quality monitoring capabilities at state and territory level, including fixed monitoring sites and portable equipment that can be rapidly deployed in a bushfire emergency.

Professor Vardoulakis said we also need to better understand the effectiveness of related health protection advice for both the general population and sensitive groups such as children, pregnant women, and people with lung and heart conditions.

Lung Foundation Australia CEO Mark Brooke said this summer has clearly demonstrated that the quality of Australia’s air is critical to our way of life and that many Australians, are deeply concerned about air quality.

“What the last 3-4 months have shown is that there is not a great deal of understanding about the impact of poor air quality and what that means for everyday Australians,” he said.

“We are calling on the Government to make a significant increase in air quality research and take practical steps to ensure that Australians have access to information about that air quality.”

A key recommendation outlined in the National Strategic Action Plan for Lung Conditions is to develop a national personalised air quality monitoring system to help individual Australians and policy makers understand current environmental conditions and breathe easier.

“A personalised air quality monitoring system would allow all Australians to have access to real time data around the quality of the air they’re currently breathing.”

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