Bushfire and wood-heater smoke - a concern for the health of Tasmanians.

Tuesday, 2 February 2021 - 1:30pm

Bushfires are an ever-increasing problem in Australia and we know that every summer brings the certainty of more to come. Early in 2019, Tasmania experienced a very active fire season, with blazes across the state continuing for several weeks. Of course, we are about to face this worrying time of year all over again, but what of the impact on health? The bushfires in 2019 greatly affected the quality of our air, not only in the fire-affected areas, but in many other parts of the state due to wind currents. Furthermore, as over 25% of all homes in Tasmania still use wood-fired heaters, woodsmoke generated from home heating may be another potential contributor to poor air quality in the household and the atmosphere.  Research into our air quality, both indoor and outdoor, is vital for our health.

One of the RHHRF’s Incubator Grants for 2020, selected back in September 2019, brings together researchers from the Menzies Institute for Medical Research including Associate Professor Fay Johnston, Professor Andrew Palmer, Professor Haydn Walters, Dr Barbara de Graaff, Dr Ingrid Cox and Mr Nicolas Borchers Arriagada, working with Dr Nick Harkness of the Royal Hobart Hospital. Generously funded by Blundstone Australia Pty Ltd, this study will investigate the association between bushfire and woodfire smoke on hospitalisations throughout Tasmania.

The team will evaluate historical records for a 10-year period to ascertain patterns of presentation at hospitals across Tasmania during the bushfire seasons, while also reviewing winter periods when wood-heating is most prominent throughout many households. This will assist with planning for hospital resources and will also help to identify high risk disease groups and geographic areas that should be targeted with better preventative measures.

What do we know?

Over the years, research has shown that high levels of air pollution are associated with poor health outcomes; more specifically, cardiorespiratory illness and its associated mortality. Although Australia, and more specifically Tasmania, is not as well-known for high levels of industrial pollution as other developed countries in the northern hemisphere, bushfires and other sources of atmospheric pollution, such as woodsmoke, are considerable contributors to poor air quality and of course ongoing exposure to pollution is not good for our health.

Relevance to Tasmanians

Maintaining a healthy population is essential to the progress of Tasmania. Identification and prevention of avoidable hospitalisations will assist in improving availability of resources at our local hospitals. This can assist in reducing waiting times for care while also enabling better utilisation of skilled staff resources across the hospital. Overall, identification of high-risk groups and communities most affected by biomass smoke can help with targeted in order to improve the health and wellbeing of Tasmanians.

What’s next?

This project is the first step to identifying the magnitude of the problem in Tasmania. Next steps will focus on quantifying the overall costs associated with biomass smoke in our community.Fundamentally, these studies will help us to understand better ways to support those with respiratory conditions during heightened times of exposure to harmful airborne smoke pollution.There is so much more that can be done.

Please consider providing a gift this summer that will support local researchers on their quest for better community health outcomes, now and into the future – it means so much to so many Tasmanians.

We will be sure to keep you up to date as we uncover more vital information from this local study.