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Long-term health impacts of bushfires still unknown

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The underlying biological mechanisms for how bushfire smoke causes and exacerbates health issues are poorly understood, which limits our ability to help those affected—including pregnant women, who may be more vulnerable. With the 2020 bushfire season upcoming and the tragedy of the Black Summer bushfires still fresh, experts have called for knowledge gaps on the adverse effects on people’s physical and mental health to be addressed

Organisation/s: Australian Academy of Science, Australian Academy of Health and Medical Sciences

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Media release

From: Australian Academy of Science

The underlying biological mechanisms for how bushfire smoke causes and exacerbates health issues are poorly understood, which limits our ability to help those affected—including pregnant women, who may be more vulnerable.

With the 2020 bushfire season upcoming and the tragedy of the Black Summer bushfires still fresh, experts have called for knowledge gaps on the adverse effects on people’s physical and mental health to be addressed.

The recommendations are part of a bushfire expert brief, ‘After the bushfires: addressing the health impacts’, published today by the Australian Academy of Science and the Australian Academy of Health and Medical Sciences (AAHMS).

The brief was informed by contributions from Fellows from both Academies as well as other experts, including through a roundtable organised by AAHMS.

“Pregnant women tend to breathe at a faster rate, which may make them more vulnerable to smoke exposure,” said Professor Caroline Homer AO, Co-Program Director of Maternal, Child and Adolescent Health at Burnet Institute.

“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.

“We also do not know whether fine particles and other toxins are transferable through breast milk to babies, or how heat stress or the stress of an emergency may affect infants,” Professor Homer said.

Other groups including children, people with a disability, people who are homeless, people with pre-existing health conditions and Aboriginal and Torres Straits Islands communities are also more vulnerable to the health impacts of bushfire.

It is not just our bodies that are impacted: Much is to be learnt about mental health impacts, particularly on first responders and vulnerable communities.

A range of psychological factors results from the processing of trauma following bushfire events, with people located at or near a bushfire and those further away experiencing mental health issues.

Some of the common mental health impacts include anxiety, depression, substance abuse and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). 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,” said Scientia Professor Helen Christensen AO, Director and Chief Scientist at the Black Dog Institute.

“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.”

“Climate models anticipate more bushfires in coming decades, and that those fires will be more intense than in the past,” said Professor Tony Capon, Director of the Monash Sustainable Development Institute, who attended the AAHMS roundtable which formed the basis of this brief.

“There is a pressing need to improve the prevention, preparedness for, and management of bushfires.  And, to better mitigate and manage the health impacts of increased fire risk, including the provision of appropriate information and support for patients, health professionals and communities,” said Professor Capon.

This joint brief with the Australian Academy of Health and Medical Sciences is part of a series by the Australian Academy of Science. Earlier briefs included: soil health after bushfires and monitoring wildlife recovery. Future briefs will cover topics including ecosystem services and remote sensing and data availability.

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