Australia’s top pollution experts are teaming up to propose a major new study into the long-term health impacts of bushfire smoke.
- A team of Australian academics is seeking funding to study the health impacts of bushfire smoke
- A previous study looked at the effects of 45 days of smoke inhalation
- That study found pregnant women were more likely to contract gestational diabetes
Guy Marks from the University of New South Wales said he was not confident in the current health advice offered by authorities because there was very little evidence available.
“Are masks even that effective? What about air filtration? Or staying indoors. We’re not sure that any of that is right, but they’re all testable questions,” Professor Marks said.
He is putting together a team of two dozen top Australian researchers to investigate the medical fallout from the fires.
It comes as Victoria is smothered in toxic fumes, causing Melbourne’s air quality to be ranked the worst in the world.
Bushfires are responsible for a smoke haze which has been affecting the quality of air breathed by millions of people, including those living in Sydney, Canberra, and Melbourne.
Some Sydney suburbs have recorded air quality more than 10 times worse than what is considered hazardous.
Significant government funding will be required, but Professor Marks says the research will be world leading.
“This is a new reality that we’re living with,” he said.
“Australia is at the forefront of a changing climate and it’s our responsibility to investigate.
“It’s likely this is not going to be the last such episode and we need to know more about what the health effects are.”
Researchers hope to conduct a range of studies, including human experimental tests to see how effective P2 masks are and toxicology tests to see how smoke particles affect the bloodstream.
To date, the closest comparable study available in Australia is an academic paper on the Hazelwood coal fire in 2014.
Residents in the nearby town of Morwell endured close to six weeks of toxic smoke after a bushfire ignited the mine.
When the air cleared, a team of researchers led by Monash’s Professor Michael Abramson studied the effects of 45 days of smoke inhalation on the residents in the small community.
The results surprised even the researchers.
Pregnant women, especially those in their second trimester, were more likely to contract gestational diabetes, a condition that affects the mother’s blood sugar level.
Their babies stored the extra sugar as fat and grew larger than normal.
About 16 women were affected, in the town of just over 13,000 people.
“While a coal fire and bushfire aren’t the same, they both emit toxic Pm2.5 particles and carbon monoxide,” Professor Abramson said.
With thousands of women pregnant during the bushfires, Professor Abramson is concerned the effects of the recent smoke haze could be more widespread.
“It’s been going on for months … it’s well beyond what our previous study addressed.”
Professor Abramson will form part of the team of researchers led by Professor Marks, and intends to find an answer.
“It’s not easy to get funding for environmental health research,” he said.
“Until now bushfires have not been a priority area getting targeted funding.”
It appears that is now shifting, with the Federal Government announcing $5 million for bushfire-related health research.
Three million will go towards research considering the physical impact of prolonged smoke exposure, and two million will go towards studies into the mental health impact.
Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt said it is more about community reassurance rather than significant concern.
“The expectation is as the smoke recedes so will any respiratory effect, but we want to provide absolute reassurance, data and evidence as well as support for health going forward.
“Clear long-term evidence will make sure any issues that might arise are identified early and if we see any trends emerging we will be able to move at rapid speed to address it.”
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