Smoke generated by bushfires poses a health risk, but the end may now be in sight.

Alongside the headlines generated around the world about Australia’s bushfires, one topic that drew international attention during the height of the crisis was the dense smoke surrounding bushfire-prone areas.

The Australian Tourism Export Council (ATEC) Managing Director Peter Shelley, recently told the Financial Review that the number of international tourists booking holidays to Australia is down 10 to 20 per cent due to the bushfires and that this will cost the country at least $4.5 billion by the end of the year. People are afraid not just of the bushfires, but the smoke that we have inhaled during the last couple of months.

As Australia experienced its worst bushfires on record, you did not need to be in the fire areas themselves to have an experience of poor air quality. In fact, many urban areas in Australia had some of the world’s worst air quality. This was apparent in Melbourne on 14 January. During the Australian Open, viewers all around the world were confronted with the sight of conditioned athletes collapsing due to smoke inhalation.

The long-term after-effects of this bushfire smoke inhalation are unknown. According to the Department of Health, bushfire smoke contains fine particles that pose health risks. Most people exposed to the smoke expect mild symptoms including sore eyes, sore nose, and sore throat. However, it is more dangerous for people with existing lung and heart conditions like asthma, emphysema or angina. These people should avoid outdoor physical activity when there is smoke around, keep medication with them and stay indoors with the doors and windows shut.

On 11 January Professor John Wilson, President-elect and a respiratory physician from the RACP, said: “This is an unprecedented public health crisis and we don’t yet know the impact this prolonged exposure to bushfire smoke is going to have. Since the bushfire crisis began, doctors have already seen an increase in patients presenting with respiratory issues.”

“It’s critical that there is a comprehensive and coordinated response to this health crisis, and that all who need healthcare have timely access to expert health services – both in the immediate and longer-term, as people may suffer a range of ongoing serious health consequences, particularly respiratory and cardiac conditions, as well as mental illness,” Professor Wilson said regarding bushfires and public health.

The ACT government were also concerned that poor air quality may also affect the beginning of the 2020 school year, with the ACT government indicating that it may need to make plans to temporarily close schools or keep students indoors, due to fires in the Snowy Mountains fanning smoke into the capital.

As dedicated crews worked hard to get the fires under control, the cardiologist and physician Dr Arnagretta Hunter told The Canberra Times that she was “cautiously optimistic” that the worst has passed and that air quality would return to normal.

“What’s really important around the messaging – and this goes for everyone – is that when there is a clear day and the air quality is good, that you do go outside,” Dr Hunter said.

Angela Cadena & Jonathan Foye

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