Australia

Funding boost to tackle physical, mental health impacts of bushfire smoke exposure

The Australian Tennis centre and MCG are seen from Eureka Tower as smoke haze from the bushfires continues to hang over Melbourne. Source: AAP

The federal government has announced $5 million worth of grants to fund research into the physical and mental health impacts of smoke exposure.

The health impacts of long-term exposure to bushfire smoke have triggered a $5 million research pledge from the Federal government.

Australia's bushfire crisis has seen cities and towns along the east coast choking in smoke despite not being impacted directly by fires.

Smoke haze from the bushfires continues to hang over Melbourne.

Melbourne has followed Canberra in experiencing some of the worst air quality out of any major city across the globe.

The concerns about the health impacts of those smoky conditions have seen the government earmark $3 million for research examining the physical impact of prolonged smoke exposure. A further $2 million will be put towards studies into the mental health impact of the bushfires. 

The Australian National University’s Professor Sotiris Vardoulakis helped author the UK's first-ever Climate Change Risk Assessment and said that while most of the health issues from bushfire smoke are “reversible” there remains a concern over the long term health impacts for people already sensitive to air pollution. 

Sotiris Vardoulakis is Professor of Global Environmental Health at the Australian National University.

“Of course people are concerned about the effects of their health and the health of their families,” he told SBS News.

“Many cities in Australia have experienced very heavy air pollution in relation to bushfire smoke in recent weeks longer than in previous seasons.”

The Sydney Opera House is seen through smoke haze from bushfires in Sydney.

He said that while people were justified in their concerns about physical harm from smoke or fires, there was a significant mental health factor to consider.

"It is causing a lot of stress to many people affected by bushfires and also affected by bushfire smoke," Mr Vardoulakis said. 

Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt said the research would also look into exposure reduction methods and help develop resilience strategies in the future.

"The current bushfire crisis that is impacting large parts of Australia has devastated individuals and communities," Mr Hunt said.

The Sydney Opera House is obscured by smoke haze.

Mr Vardoulakis said the monitoring of air quality and remaining conscious of reducing your exposure to “hazardous” bushfire smoke remained critical as the fire season wore on.

“Most people will be fine - most people will experience only short term symptoms," he said.

“[But] there is some concern that people who are sensitive to bushfire smoke and air pollution may experience long-term effects.”

Australian Medical Association president Dr Tony Bartone said the lack of research into smoke exposure made public education a challenge.

"We need to rapidly translate the research findings into everyday medical practice,"  he said.

Dr Bartone also encouraged more funding so research would be completed ahead of any future emergencies.

Opposition leader Anthony Albanese had earlier added his voice to growing concerns about “smoky and hazardous” conditions impacting cities “each and every day”.

“It is extraordinary that we now have a circumstance whereby tennis matches are being called off. People are not going to work,” he said.

“But, of course, the biggest impact is in the communities directly affected.”

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