“What we’re finding now is that air pollution tends to affect all parts of the body,” he said. “There is increasing evidence around air pollution and neurological conditions, for example Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s.”
For Australians suffering through the bushfire crisis that has seen Sydney and Melbourne blanketed in smoke and Canberra recording the worst air quality in the world, the implications remain unclear. But Professor Jalaludin said researchers expected to see some level of increased risk.
“For individual people, the impacts could be low, but if there is pre-existing heart disease, high blood pressure and high cholesterol, air pollution might just tip you over into having a heart attack,” Professor Jalaludin said.
Bushfires produce particulate-matter pollution – airborne particles that are small enough to enter and damage human lung tissue.
One of a handful of studies of comparable disasters is a 10-year research project examining health impacts from the Hazelwood coal mine fire in Victoria’s La Trobe Valley, which blanketed the neighbouring town of Morwell with similarly toxic smoke over the 45 days it burned in early 2014.
Fay Johnston, an associate professor of public health at the University of Tasmania’s Menzies Institute for Medical Research, said early findings showed measurable changes to the lungs of young children exposed to smoke from the Hazelwood fire either as infants, toddlers or in the womb.
“Unborn babies exposed to the Hazelwood smoke were more likely to experience coughs or colds two to four years after the fires,” Associate Professor Johnston said.
“Kids exposed after they were born were more likely to be prescribed antibiotics in the year after the fire … And if a woman was pregnant and got a lot of smoke at the time of the fire, we found these women had a higher risk of gestational diabetes.”
She said it was difficult to draw conclusions from the results due to the small sample size – with the diabetes study based on about 700 de-identified medical records and about 300 children participating in the wider follow-up study – and potential increased medical vigilance after the fire.
A study of adults exposed to smoke from the Hazelwood fires also found increased rates of respiratory symptoms.
As the federal government’s response to the bushfire crisis turns to the recovery effort, Health Minister Greg Hunt on Monday said the government had deployed eight Australian Medical Assistance Team specialists to provide “immediate clinical and logistical assistance” to people evacuated from bushfire-affected communities in Victoria.
Medics, doctors, nurses and psychologists are also being deployed to priority areas in NSW, including Batemans Bay, Moruya, Narooma and Bega Valley on the south coast.
Labor health spokesman Chris Bowen called on the Morrison government to “prioritise working with the states to develop a respiratory care plan to service those in bushfire-impacted areas”, saying waiting lists to see a respiratory specialist in rural and regional areas were “simply too long”.
“The government should also listen to calls from Labor to add climate as a national health priority so we are prepared for the health impacts of disasters such as this,” Mr Bowen said.
Dana is health and industrial relations reporter for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.