Health sector unites to urge govt action on bushfire smoke

Tuesday, 17 December, 2019

Health sector unites to urge govt action on bushfire smoke

In a united front, 28 health and medical groups have released a joint statement urging the federal and NSW governments to respond to the public health emergency in NSW created by the ongoing air pollution from bushfire smoke.

The groups include: Climate and Health Alliance (CAHA), Royal Australasian College of Physicians (RACP), Australasian College of Emergency Medicine (ACEM), Public Health Association of Australia (PHAA), Doctors for the Environment Australia (DEA), Lung Foundation Australia (LFA), Thoracic Society of Australia and New Zealand (TSANZ), Australian Nursing and Midwifery Federation (ANMF), as well as 14 others.

“This is a public health emergency,” said CAHA Executive Director Fiona Armstrong.

“Both the federal and the state government of NSW must prioritise action to help reduce risks to people’s health from the air pollution from the bushfires and to implement measures to help alleviate the health and climate crisis.

“Climate change is going to get much worse and we will see more and more of these events. We must take the kinds of actions on climate change that scientists are calling for: dramatic cuts in emissions within the next few years or we’ll see warming potentially spiral out of control and we won’t be able to stop it.”

RACP Fellow Dr Kate Charlesworth said, “Climate-related health effects are having the most impact on our most vulnerable: babies, children, the elderly and people with pre-existing disease.

“There is no safe level of air pollution. To protect health, we need to shift rapidly away from fossil fuels and towards cleaner, healthier and safer forms of energy.

“Doctors are increasingly seeing the health-related impacts of climate change on our patients and communities. Just as we spoke up on asbestos and tobacco, so we have a responsibility to speak up on climate change,” she said.

ACEM President Dr John Bonning highlighted that hospital emergency departments (EDs) are at the forefront of treating the impacts from the bushfires.

“With projections showing that climate change will cause a significant rise in the number of overall ED presentations, an increase in the complexity of presentations as well as surges resulting from climate disasters, this medical emergency needs an emergency response,” Dr Bonning said.

PHAA President David Templeman expressed that “it is vital to acknowledge the immediate priorities linked to personal safety, mental health and wellbeing, including trauma to those actually personally affected”.

“But in facing what will soon be coming our way, we need a plan to address forest and grassland management practice, emergency management funding and training for all firefighting professionals (career and volunteer). There is also action needed on house design regulations, zoning regulations and other factors that will help to reduce the risks from future warming and climate disruption.”

DEA spokesperson Dr Lai Heng Foong said that the NSW and Qld bushfires are a sign of what’s to come.

“In the coming summers, we can expect not only a bushfire season, but also a smoke haze season. The effects of climate change are upon us now, and we can no longer delay action to mitigate against these effects.”

TSANZ recently declared that climate change is a medical emergency. The society’s President Professor Bruce Thompson said, “It is logical and reasonable for us, as respiratory health professionals, to act on the strength of the evidence before us. And the evidence is clear: climate change is a medical emergency that is already impacting the health of our patients.”

LFA CEO Mark Brooke expressed his support for the statement and called for a National Strategy on Climate, Health and Well-being, saying it was the right of every Australian to have healthy lungs and clean air.

“Climate change and air quality significantly contribute to poor lung health, increased health and economic burden, disability and death. If we want to prevent the worst air pollution from bushfire smoke, one of the best things our governments can do, aside from fuel reduction burns, is to set stronger and better standards for everyday air quality.”

The full list of signatories is available at

Image credit: © Atkinson

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