The following Question on Notice was asked by the Greens Member for the South West Region Hon Diane Evers MLC and answered today in Parliament by the Hon Alanna Clohesy as the Upper House representative of the Hon Roger Cook MLA, Minister for Health.
Hon Diane Evers to the parliamentary secretary representing the Minister for Health:
(1) Will the Government provide the following data in relation to the health impacts of smoke from prescribed burns undertaken by Department of Parks and Wildlife from 2013–2018 for Perth and the South West:
(a) how many visits to GPs were due to the impact of smoke from prescribed burns in each year;
(b) how many visits to emergency departments were due to the impact of smoke from prescribed burns in each year;
(c) how many hospital admissions were due to the impact of smoke from prescribed burns in each year; and
(d) how many people died as a result of the impact of smoke from prescribed burns in each year?
(2) What is the estimated total medical cost of all presentations related to smoke from prescribed burns by year in the period 2013–2018?
Hon Alanna Clohesy replied:
(1)–(2) The Department of Health (DOH) does not have data to answer this question.
It is to be noted that:
Estimation of the health impacts of smoke from prescribed burns (PBs) for a particular area such as Perth and the South West is complicated for two main reasons: firstly, it is difficult to determine population exposure to PBs, and secondly identifying related changes in health outcomes among the daily variation in those outcomes is problematic.
Measuring smoke from PBs is complicated by many factors such as the size, number and location of PBs, the wind speed and direction on the day of PBs, the number, size and location of other wild fires, local government and private land-owner burns occurring on the same day, as well as air pollution caused by other sources such as local traffic.
Determining population exposure specific to PBs is extremely difficult. Relying solely on ‘event’ (i.e., days of PBs) is not sufficient as PBs do not always create smoke in populated areas. Furthermore, sometimes smoke events are short-term (a few hours) and our understanding of the health effects of short-term exposures is still limited.
Identifying variations in health outcomes attributable to specific PBs is also difficult. Firstly, this relies on hospital or emergency department attendance data, which only captures the more extreme end of potential health outcomes. Secondly, in small populations, such as in the South West, daily variations in hospital or emergency department data can be influenced by small numbers. This makes it difficult to determine the variation due to smoke events.
More research is required to evaluate the health impacts of PBs in the general population across Australia and other countries.
The DOH is currently planning a research project to improve exposure assessment of PBs and to assess the related health outcomes in collaboration with government and non-government organisations such as Landgate, Bureau of Meteorology, Department of Biodiversity, Conservation and Attractions – Parks and Wildlife Service and FrontierSI. This research will investigate the use of a combination of satellite imagery, event data and ground-level air pollution monitoring to identify smoke events that can be attributed to PBs.
Satellite images of smoke plumes due to PBs will be identified and areas under smoke plumes examined. Populations living in such areas that are potentially affected by PBs will be assessed in terms of their hospitalisations and emergency department attendances.