How The Australian Bushfires Will Impact Health

Photo: Matty Williams.

Samantha Gash is an ultramarathoner with an intense training schedule — but, in the last few months, she’s had some serious disruptions to her runs. Gash lives in Melbourne, Australia, and has seen the effects of the continent-wide fire crisis firsthand.

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So far, the bushfires have killed at least 28 people and an approximated 480 million animals, from koalas to insects, according to one analysis from The University of Sydney. Other estimates say 1 billion animals may have perished.

What's still unknown is how many more human and animal lives may eventually be claimed or otherwise affected by the smoke from the fires, says Guy Marks, Ph.D. a respiratory physician, professor of medicine, and a Forum of International Respiratory Societies spokesman.

“There will be a lot more deaths that will be attributable to the smoke,” Marks says. “Studies will be done on the long-term impact.” 

Unfortunately, Gash understands what he's talking about all too well. Since the fires started, she's noticed the worsened air quality when she trains outdoors. A few times, Gash has opted to skip her runs because the skies were so hazy. She knows many of the paths she used to enjoy jogging down in the New South Wales Blue Mountains have probably burned to ash.  

How are the Australia fires impacting health? 

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Smoke is composed of a complex mix of gasses and fine particles that are created when wood, brush, and other materials burn. Marks says these fragments can cause health problems when they are breathed into your lungs. Young children, pregnant women, older adults, and people with preexisting conditions that affect their hearts or lungs are especially vulnerable to smoke. 

In Sydney, Australia, what's known as the "PM2.5 readings" (a measure of fine particles in the air that are less than 2.5 micrometers across) have hit almost 400 micrograms per cubic meter. These numbers are bad news, explains John Balmes, M.D., a professor of medicine at the University of California at San Francisco and a volunteer medical spokesperson with the American Lung Association.

“You wouldn’t see those levels in the U.S. unless there were serious wildfires,” Balmes says. The level is considered hazardous if it persists for 24 hours or longer. 

What are the long-term health effects of the Australia fires? 

Both Balmes and Marks say that as of now, researchers are unable to say exactly how Australians’ health will be impacted long-term. “We need to know more about what the effects are so we can give people advice,” Marks says. “We need to know for certain whether we should tell people to wear masks, how much it helps to stay indoors versus outdoors, whether they should be doing exercise, and how they can protect themselves in general.” 

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How does climate change factor in?

Marks and Balmes also say that climate change is a major cause of the fires and ensuing environmental tragedy. “It’s definitely a climate change impact and it’s only going to get worse,” Balmes says.

Not everyone agrees. Although Scott Morrison, Australia’s prime minister, has acknowledged climate change’s influence, Craig Kelly, a member of parliament, has denied that there’s a link, The Guardian reports. 

Marks says that he wishes government would accept the crisis for what it is and take more actionable steps to prevent the fires from worsening and reoccurring.

“We should be leading the world in combating climate change, and we’re not. We’re making excuses and I’m very angry about that,” he says. “I’m distressed about the damage that’s been done to the environment and the political failures it presents in Australia and on a global level.” 

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What can I do to help Australia? 

There are a lot of ways you can help, including holding politicians accountable, donating to organizations with boots on the ground, and signing petitions.

Photo: Adam Borrelo.
Samantha Gash, ultramarathoner

As Gash saw the fires destroy her homeland, she knew she needed to do something. “There is definitely a transition from being aware of a tragedy but being geographically removed from it, and then seeing it play out in your day-to-day life,” Gash says. “At the beginning, there was no smoke where I was, and I was just watching it on the news… But then it started to take over the entire country. At first, I was able to turn it off. But when it’s on every single channel, it’s on the radio, it’s everywhere 24/7, when you see the smoke, and then when you see the fire yourself in person, that’s when it gets to a new level.” 

As she was immersed in the calamity, she decided it was time to take action. She didn’t want to feel helpless while watching the disaster on TV anymore. That’s why she started the Relief run with Strava Challenge to raise money for the Australian Red Cross Disaster Relief and Recovery Fund. So far, she’s raised $555,000 and has had 9,5000 people register for the virtual run.

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“It’s been a scrappy operation from its infancy,” she says. “But eventually, I came to this 'ah ha moment', where I realized there must be something I could do to mobilize the running community I’m a part of to make a positive impact in the face of such a crisis.” 

Relief Run details:

Participate: Join the Strava Challenge and pledge your run at Relief Run

Cost: Registration fee is $50AUD — $34.50USD — and 100% goes to the Australian Red Cross Disaster Relief and Recovery Fund. 

Timing: The challenge starts on Friday, January 17, 2020 at 12:00am in each athlete's local time zone and ends on January 19, 2020 at 11:59pm in the athlete's local time zone. 

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Eligibility: Run or walk at least 5K during the challenge window and upload to Strava. All GPS runs, walks, or wheelchair activities will count towards this challenge, including treadmill and manual entries. 

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