Bushfire smoke: 417 deaths attributable to summer fires

23 March 2020

More than 400 deaths and 3000 hospitalisations may be attributable to the bushfire smoke that shrouded Australia’s eastern states over the recent summer, researchers report in this week’s MJA.

In a preliminary evaluation of the health burden of the 2019–2020 fires, the researchers estimated that bushfire smoke was associated with 417 excess deaths, 1124 hospitalisations for cardiovascular problems, 2027 hospitalisations for respiratory problems, and 1305 emergency department presentations for asthma.

The researchers analysed hospital presentations in New South Wales, Queensland, the Australian Capital Territory and Victoria between 1 October 2019 and 10 February 2020, and defined bushfire-smoke affected days as “days on which the 24-hour mean particulate matter less than 2.5µm in diameter (PM2.5) exceeded the 95th percentile of historical daily mean values for individual air quality stations”.

Professor Sotiris Vardoulakis, Professor of Global Environmental Health at the Australian National University’s Research School for Population Health, said the preliminary analysis provided “very useful” evidence of the substantial health impacts of bushfire smoke.

“This is a very strong public health message,” he said, noting that the 417 indirect deaths eclipsed the 34 direct deaths from the bushfires. “The impact of bushfire smoke on mortality is likely to be an order of magnitude higher than the direct impact of the fires.”

Read the full article on InSight, featuring commentary by Professor Sotiris Vardoulakis