Hands and feet

September 2009

Professional

Bushfires and human health in a changing environment

Volume 38, No.9, September 2009 Pages 720-724

Fay H Johnston

Bushfires are an integral part of the Australian environment. While the immediate health impacts of these fires can be devastatingly obvious, there are many other serious aspects of bushfires that remain less well understood. A holistic perspective of bushfires is essential for minimising harm and ensuring public safety in an environment that is becoming increasingly conducive to major bushfire catastrophes. This review summarises the current evidence about the immediate health risks of bushfires and the special health needs of survivors. It also looks at the health risks of smoke haze and other environmental hazards associated with bushfires.

Large, destructive bushfires, such as those that experienced by Victoria in February 2009, are often beyond human control, despite technologically advanced fire fighting services and the resources allocated to bushfire control. The immediate impact of bushfires can be devastating, with loss of life, livelihoods and infrastructure at the fire fronts; and increased morbidity and mortality in smoke affected regions, which can often be far from the fires themselves. The indirect effects of bushfires are more subtle, and include the social and economic costs of rebuilding damaged infrastructure; long term adverse effects on physical and mental health; and environmental impacts, such as damage to water catchments and potential effects on the global carbon cycle.1 Preventing harm to individuals and populations in this context remains a major challenge; it requires an understanding of the health risks and the complex interactions between society and the environment.

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Correspondence afp@racgp.org.au

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