Australian Bushfires

Bushfire Smoke has Made More than a Quarter of Australians Sick, According to Survey

A new report from the Australia Institute suggests that the effects of the ongoing bushfire crisis could be felt for years to come.
January 23, 2020, 4:28am
australia bushfire
Image via Saeed Khan / AFP

More than half of all Australians have been affected by the country’s bushfire crisis within the past three months, a new report reveals, with more than a quarter suffering illnesses or health effects as a result of the smoke.

The Australia Institute surveyed more than 1,000 people around the country and found that 57 percent were directly affected by the blazes. Of the respondents in that survey:

  • 33 percent changed their usual routine in some way, such as avoiding outdoor exercise
  • 26 percent suffered health effects including breathing and respiratory problems
  • 15 percent had to change or cancel holiday or travel plans
  • 12 percent found that a usual place of business or leisure was closed due to smoke haze or the bushfires themselves
  • 9 percent missed work because of smoke haze or bushfires
  • 8 percent claimed their home was unsuitable to live in
  • While 3 percent were affected in other ways

New South Wales appears to be the most heavily affected, with almost three quarters (74 percent) of respondents in the state reporting some kind of impact from the fires or the smoke. Victoria was the second most heavily affected (61 percent) while in Western Australia fires impacted almost one in three respondents (30 percent).

The number of people around the country who experienced health impacts from the smoke, based on the percentage of respondents, is estimated to equal about 5.1 million Australian adults—an estimated 2.8 million of who live in NSW. Health impacts on children—who are generally more likely to experience adverse reactions to air pollution—weren’t included in the survey, but the report’s authors note that “if we assume children experienced health impacts as often as adults, we can infer around 1.5 million children experienced health impacts as a result of the smoke.

“It must be emphasised this is based on a self-assessment of any sort of health impacts,” they added. “It will include a wide range, from sore throats to coughing to infections to asthmatic attacks.”

Based on the percentage of respondents who missed work because of fires or smoke—and based on the loose assumption that each affected worker took one day off—it’s estimated that at least 1.8 million work days were lost as a result of the bushfires. Since the fires and smoke have continued since the poll was closed on January 12, many of these figures are likely now to be even higher.

The report also showed a correlation between people being directly affected by the fires and their concerns about climate change. Those who were impacted were much more likely to be “very concerned” about climate change (58 percent) than those not impacted (32 percent). Reflecting on the findings of the report, Tom Swann, senior researcher at the Australia Institute, suggested that the fallout from this bushfire season may well be felt for months, even years, to come.

“Australia is in the grip of a national climate disaster. The social, economic, and medical impacts are vast and only just starting to become clear,” he said. “Our research shows that it’s likely more than 5 million Australian adults, along with many children, have suffered negative health impacts as a result of the fires and at least 1.5 million have missed work.”

Swann further added that “even looking simply at lost work days, the bill is in the billions of dollars. The broader impacts and recovery efforts will cost many billions more and take many years.

“That is why it is so concerning that rising emissions threaten to make events like this even more common in the future.”

Follow Gavin on Twitter or Instagram