Health impacts of bushfire smoke on Hunter residents high, Flutracking survey finds

SMOKE HAZE: Brian White, 70, outside his home in Cessnock in December. He has emphysema, and wore a face mask during the bushfires near Wollombi as a protective measure. Picture: Marina Neil
SMOKE HAZE: Brian White, 70, outside his home in Cessnock in December. He has emphysema, and wore a face mask during the bushfires near Wollombi as a protective measure. Picture: Marina Neil

THE number of Hunter people seeking healthcare for symptoms attributed to bushfire smoke is "just the tip of the iceberg", a new survey has found.

More than 65 per cent of 1200 Hunter people who responded to the Flutracking survey in December reported having at least one symptom they attributed to bushfire smoke. Eye irritation, throat irritation and a cough were the most commonly reported symptoms, but sneezing, headaches, and breathlessness, as well as anxiety and depression, were also reported.

"Looking at the number of people who presented for health care, we were able to make an estimate that for every one person that presented to a health provider, there are another 10 in the community with symptoms who didn't," University of Newcastle Conjoint Associate Professor, and Flutracking coordinator, Dr Craig Dalton said.

"It shows that the presentation to healthcare providers is just the tip of the iceberg in these events."

Hunter New England Health data shows there were 624 emergency presentations for breathing and asthma related conditions in December, a 25 per cent increase on the five year average. Flutracking researchers asked a random sample of 1200 participants in the Hunter New England region, as well as 1200 people in the Hobart area, if they experienced symptoms between December 2 and December 15. Hobart did not have elevated particle matter in the air, and had little-to-no smoke during that time.

"Flutracking gets about 40,000 responses every week in winter from a group of people who are really motivated to answer public health surveys, so we have - for a long time - been prepared to use this group for emerging public health issues," Dr Dalton said. "We sent the survey out in December, and we got about 1100 responses in the first six hours. So people were very responsive. It was a very good way of getting a quick response from a grass roots level, because we usually only see what comes through hospital doors and go to GPs. But we don't often know what the bigger part of the iceberg is, underneath all that. We did this to see what was really happening out there in the community."

Smoke study: Dr Craig Dalton says a Flutracker survey looking at affects of bushfire smoke show the wider health impacts of bushfire smoke.

Smoke study: Dr Craig Dalton says a Flutracker survey looking at affects of bushfire smoke show the wider health impacts of bushfire smoke.

The survey results showed eye and throat irritation rates were more than nine times higher in Hunter New England than in Hobart.

Brian White, of Cessnock, has emphysema. He wore a face mask as a protective measure as fires burned nearby at Wollombi in December.

"I stayed indoors most of the time, but the smoke still ruined my throat a bit," he said. "My wife was at me all the time - 'Put your mask on when you go outside'. But if I went out to muck around in the garden, I didn't put my mask on, did I?

"It was alright until about a week on, when I noticed I had a bad throat from it."

Dr Dalton had been surprised by the results of the survey.

"My guess would have been about 30 or 40 per cent, rather than 65 per cent, of people who felt they had symptoms related to the smoke," he said.

"I was walking around completely unbothered by it. But that is where the research can give you a reality check of what is actually happening.

"This information is useful for awareness of the total impact on the community.

"It helps us recognise that there is a lot of people developing shortness of breath, and breathlessness.

"And the importance of making sure people have an asthma management plan when we are expecting large bushfire events, so they can control their asthma."

Dr Dalton said the research also sent another message about the "psychological impact" of these events on the community.

"It helps give an understanding that a lot of people have felt depressed because of the smoke effects, and the importance of providing service for those issues, and also understanding the total health impact of the bushfires and climate change."

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