How do we improve public health messaging during periods of bushfire smoke and poor air quality?

Australian Public Health Conference 2020

Workshop Friday 23 October

Topic: How do we improve public health messaging during periods of bushfire smoke and poor air quality?


An estimated 445 people were killed by exposure to bushfire smoke over the 2019-20 Black Summer fires in Australia, while 3340 were admitted to hospital due to heart and lung problems. A further 1373 people attended emergency departments due to complications with asthma.

The question is how many lives may have been saved if there had been better, more timely and more consistent communications surrounding dangers created by bushfire smoke and poor air quality more generally.

A workshop at the Australian Public Health Conference, run by the Centre for Air pollution, energy and health Research (CAR) brought together researchers, not for profits, public health organisations, public health practitioners and government representatives in a ‘knowledge exchange’.

Facilitator Ana Porta Cubas from CAR said the bushfires experienced in 2019-20 were exceptional in terms of their length and ferocity.

Debriefs on the fires to date had highlighted the importance of identifying gaps in the response last summer with communications and public messaging, an area requiring ongoing attention.

Dr Rachel Tham, from the Australian Catholic University, said smoke from bushfires is seen as ‘the unseen killer’ and as a result of last summer’s fires ten times more died from smoke than the fires themselves.

Dr Tham said that while there was considerable evidence of the short-term impact of bushfire smoke related to mortality and morbidity, the long-term impacts were largely unknown.

She also referred to research from Western Australia which showed smoke effects are not only restricted to bushfires. Between 2002 and 2017, hazard reduction burns in WA were estimated to have greater morbidity and mortality impacts than bushfire smoke.

Assistant Professor Fay Johnston, a specialist in environmental health at the University of Tasmania, said the fires last summer exposed many gaps in bushfire and smoke danger communications and public messaging.

This included the confusion arising from each jurisdiction having its own reporting requirements, websites with a different look and feel, and every state and territory presenting air quality information in a different way.

A/Prof Johnston said a diversity of strategies was needed to reach the most vulnerable and across all population groups, using trusted information sources and embedding simple and consistent health messages across all platforms.

Inquiries to date following last year’s bushfires have provided recommendations which should ensure Australians are better informed and prepared for future emergencies.

These include improved government public education campaigns to help people make their own decisions about exposure to bushfire smoke and tailored messaging to target smoke-vulnerable cohorts of the community, GPs and employers.

A/Prof Johnston said despite some progress, there are still a number of important questions to be answered:

  • How do we balance the tensions of providing simple messaging and yet provide messages that are sufficiently nuanced for all vulnerable/at-risk groups?
  • How do we get nationally consistent air quality reporting that is accessible for all (both in language and technology)?
  • How can we best provide public health advice to linguistically diverse audiences? And ages?
  • How do we provide messages to outdoor workers who may not have control over their work decisions?
  • How do we best evaluate current public health messaging?
  • How do we supply health messages to those in areas of poor internet connectivity or to those with poor digital literacy?
  • Which methods of conveying public health messages about environmental smoke are most effective?

The workshop participants were told it was essential that communities could access a single source of trusted information that combines air quality with health messaging.


Image: AAP

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