Make no mistake: the climate emergency is a health emergency. As a doctor, Richard Di Natale explains the long-term health impacts of these fires, the changing climate, and what it’s going to mean for us and future generations.
By Richard Di Natale
I live in south-western Victoria, in a community that is no stranger to bushfires. I know the agony a community feels when properties are destroyed, livelihoods are left in ruins or when the worst happens and our community loses one of their own in a fire.
Like so many regional Australians, every time I hear of out of control fires I imagine the terror of an approaching fire front and the grief and trauma that follows. That tragedy has become a reality for hundreds of Australians in recent months and weeks.
As a doctor I’m also concerned about the long-term health impacts of these fires and the changing climate, and what it’s going to mean for us and future generations.
How does smoke affect health?
If you live in one of the eastern states or the ACT, the impact from the bushfires has been impossible to avoid and has affected everyone's quality of life. We’ve had smoke haze across cities for days and in some case weeks, toxic ash in our waterways, and dust clouds covering entire towns. It is in the air we breathe and the water we drink.
In the short term, exposure to airborne particles in the smoke haze may cause coughing, shortness of breath and exacerbate conditions such as asthma. People are urged to stay indoors and limit exercise or exertion in the smoke.
But the question remains: what impact will this have on our long term health? We know that prolonged exposure to toxic smoke can have serious health impacts, but the scale of the bushfire smoke across our most populated centres is unprecedented and so we can’t be certain of the health impacts beyond the short term. One of the challenges is that little research has been done on the impacts of bushfire smoke exposure over a long period of time. And let's not forget that there are significant health impacts caused by heatwaves, trauma and stress.
I remember the fear that surrounded the 2014 Morwell fire that started in an open cut coal mine and blanketed the Victorian town and the surrounding area in smoke and ash for six weeks. Children who were exposed to the smoke now have an increased likelihood of ongoing respiratory problems and many adults who lived through the mine fire now have increased symptoms of post-traumatic stress.
How prepared are we to deal with the health impacts?
The climate emergency we are in will result in more severe fire seasons, as well as an increase in other extreme weather events that could pose significant threats to public health.
Right now, Australia’s health system is simply not equipped to deal with the health impacts of climate change now and into the future. We urgently need a National Strategy on Climate, Health and Well-Being, as outlined by the Climate and Health Alliance and supported by Australia’s health and medical community. From emergency preparedness, to community education, workforce planning and governance – we need this strategy in place now to ensure that as a country we are prepared to protect human health in our new climate reality.
A crucial element of this is preparing our health stockpiles for crises to come. Just last week the Greens called for a Climate Emergency National Medical Stockpile to ensure access to the safety and medical equipment required to protect us all from climate-related extreme weather events and more ferocious fire events into the future.
The government must do more to ensure our communities are equipped to deal with the health impacts of future fire seasons and extreme weather events.
How does climate change factor in?
Last year the Australian Medical Association warned of the future impacts of climate change on Australians. This included an increase in infectious disease transmission during extreme weather events and heatwaves, higher mortality rates from heat stress, an increased incidence of mental illness – and it is time Scott Morrison and his government started paying attention.
Despite decades of warnings on the consequences of climate change on our environment and people's health our government was too slow to respond to the bushfires and left members of the public in the dark as to the health risks, limited advice about what to do to protect their health, and what precautions they could take to minimise the impacts. The government has a responsibility to everyone impacted by these fires to be better prepared next time.
Most importantly, the government must start treating the cause of these increasingly frequent and severe fires, storms, floods and droughts – the climate crisis. We need to shift away from the polluting coal, oil, and gas that fuels global warming, to renewable energy.
We can do this. It’s possible, and it will make Australia cleaner and safer. We owe it to ourselves, to the next generation, and everyone who has been left devastated by these fires.