Australia bush fires caused $2b in health costs

Study looked at smoke-related costs such as early deaths, emergency hospital admissions

Australia's recent bush fire crisis caused nearly A$2 billion (S$1.97 billion) in smoke-related health costs, from premature deaths to emergency admissions for asthma, researchers said, a record for any fire season in the country and a pointer to future health costs as the planet heats up.

The blazes burnt about eight million ha of forests and farmland in an unusually long fire season lasting more than six months from August last year to March this year, blanketing major cities - including Sydney, Melbourne and Canberra - in hazardous smoke for weeks and affecting millions of people.

Pictures of famous Sydney tourist spots - from Bondi Beach to the Harbour Bridge - all but blanked out by smoke shocked the nation and the world.

Just to the south, the federal capital Canberra recorded some of the worst air quality in the world. In early January, its Air Quality Index peaked at 5,185 - more than 25 times above hazardous levels.

The researchers said the health costs and risk to lives attributable to bush fire smoke have the potential to increase dramatically as the frequency and intensity of wildfires increase with a hotter climate.

"The global trend of longer fire seasons with more extreme fire weather is leading to fires that are unusually frequent, severe and, in some cases, economically destructive," said the authors of the study published yesterday in the journal Nature Sustainability.

They found that the health effects of smoke pollution are not always included in cost assessments of bush fire impacts, which generally focus more on the costs of fire-related injuries, housing and infrastructure losses and fighting the blazes.

To get a better idea of the direct health costs, they looked at the number of cases referred to hospital emergency departments for asthma, admissions to hospital for cardio-respiratory disorders and deaths from all causes linked to bush fire smoke in populated southern regions of Australia.

They compared the total economic costs associated with deaths and hospital admissions for each fire season (October through March) for a 20-year period from Oct 1, 2000.

The researchers found that the smoke-related health costs of the 2019-2020 fire season totalled a record A$1.95 billion - involving 429 smoke-related premature deaths, 3,230 hospital admissions for cardiovascular and respiratory disorders and 1,523 emergency cases for asthma.

The total cost was well above the next highest estimate of A$566 million in 2002-2003 and more than nine times the median annual bush fire associated costs of A$211 million for the previous 19 years, they concluded.

The authors noted that they did not account for likely ongoing costs of medication, ambulance call-outs, reduced productivity or mental health burdens, which are important contributors to the economic impacts of fire disasters.

"For these reasons, the health and economic assessments we present are likely to underestimate the true burden," they said.

And the long-term costs of bush fire smoke exposure are unknown - be it in Australia or elsewhere.

Bush fire smoke contains irritants that affect the eyes and the lungs, causing coughs, and can exacerbate heart and lung conditions.

Tiny particles in the smoke less than 2.5 microns in diameter can lodge deep inside the lungs and get into the bloodstream.

Health experts say that the long-term exposure to high levels of PM2.5 particulate matter is still unclear, although research suggests it could increase cases of heart disease and stroke.

Still, the findings are a useful guide for the authorities in Australia, the United States and Indonesia, as well as other places increasingly affected by larger and more intense fires.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 22, 2020, with the headline 'Aussie fires caused $2b in health costs'. Print Edition | Subscribe