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Australian bushfire season's long-term health effects subject of UTS study

ABC Health logo ABC Health 27/06/2020 By Kathleen Ferguson
a large ship in a body of water: Smoke from the Gosper's Mountain mega blaze in the Blue Mountain blankets Sydney. (ABC News: Michael Troy) © Provided by ABC Health Smoke from the Gosper's Mountain mega blaze in the Blue Mountain blankets Sydney. (ABC News: Michael Troy)

Did you ever wonder what those plumes of bushfire smoke that stretched across Australia were doing to your lungs? Plane crash survivor Catherine Fitzsimmons certainly did.

The flight instructor had always been active, but physical activity had become necessary to maintain the parts of her lungs that remained intact after smoke inhalation.

Ms Fitzsimmons, from Bathurst in the New South Wales central west, was pulled from a burning aircraft by the student she was teaching after a crash landing in nearby Orange in 2018.

The plane crashed into a fence and flipped over, trapping Ms Fitzsimmons inside with burning fumes.

"It could have been a lot worse," she said.

Her recovery routine, involving daily inhaling devices and exercise, was affected by last season's bushfires.

Although the nearby Gosper's Mountain mega blaze in the Blue Mountains did not reach Bathurst, apocalyptic blankets of smoke did.

The regional community's air quality station recorded hazardous air quality readings on multiple occasions over summer, choking residents who dared walk outside.

"I had a young exchange student living in my house and she had the app, and she would tell me every day what the air quality was like, and then we would decide whether we could risk going out for a bicycle ride or a walk," Ms Fitzsimmons said.

She did not risk it very often.

"Most of the time we couldn't, and this was really difficult because I needed that exercise and needed to get my lungs moving every day," she said.

Gap in knowledge about bushfire smoke

The long-term health effects of the prolonged exposure to bushfire smoke is now being investigated by the University of Technology Sydney and the Centenary Institute.

Phil Hansbro applied for a Federal Government grant to carry out the research.

He said there was a significant gap in knowledge in the space of long-term impacts.

"What may happen in the longer term is that to start with you get this inflammatory response but that can induce longer term tissue damage in the lung," Professor Hansbro said.

He said the study would also look at preventative measures.

"It is a lot easier to stop the impact of inflammation as it is happening than it is to try and reverse the effects, but we will try and do both of those," he said

He said it was necessary to identify the risks and develop treatments if Australia was going to deal with more bushfires — which .

"We are also trying to test some new therapies for other inflammatory diseases to see if we can prevent and treat the impact of bushfire smoke as well," he said.

Ms Fitzsimmons was eager to see results from the research, and hoped those without compromised respiratory systems would benefit, too.

"Even people without a prior condition need to be concerned about what they might have been breathing in at that time," she said.

The Bushfire and Natural Hazards Cooperative Research Centre is slated to release its bushfire outlook for spring in July.

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