Our Future: After the Queensland bushfires: what price on our health?

As Queensland starts to recover from a record-breaking extreme heatwave and unprecedented bushfire season, it’s important for us to pause for a moment and think about our health and check-in on the health of those around us.

In the past weeks, maximum temperature records have been smashed at numerous locations around the state, seeing many places in tropical Queensland - including Cairns, Townsville, and Cooktown - reach temperatures as high as 44℃.

Whether we are in Cairns or Canberra, as the mercury rises, so too do the risks to our mental and physical health. With extreme weather linked to climate change, unless we radically reduce our emissions, dealing with the health impacts will likely be longer and more frequent (just like the heatwaves).

Extreme heat increases the incidence of heat-related illness, including heat stroke - a life-threatening emergency requiring a swift response. Extreme heat exacerbates pre-existing chronic diseases such as heart, lung and kidney disease.

As we have seen there has been catastrophic fire conditions across Queensland. 

Health workers have had to work tirelessly during these events where we see more people, especially children and the elderly, present to the emergency department with respiratory and cardiovascular issues.

Pollutants from bushfires can affect air quality many hundreds or thousands of kilometres away. Particulate matter from bushfires have been linked to increased visits to hospital emergency departments with respiratory illnesses. Smaller particles, absorbed into the bloodstream, can trigger adverse cardiovascular effects and even death.

As we begin to take stock of the destruction of these fires, local residents are trying to come to terms with their loss. It’s not surprising that many will experience acute depression, anxiety and PTSD - some for many years.

What can we do to protect ourselves and others from the health impacts of heatwaves and bushfires? Aside from calling on the government to reduce emissions, during a heat wave ensure we must stay well-hydrated and keep to cool environments.

If you are near a bushfire, it’s important to listen when authorities tell you to evacuate.

Consider protective masks and keep your inhalers nearby if you suffer from asthma or a respiratory condition. Let’s all check-in with family, friends and neighbours.

Dr Beau Frigault is a resident with Gold Coast Health and is the Queensland State Chair of Doctors for the Environment Australia.