The University of Newcastle, Australia

Will bushfire smoke exposure make people more vulnerable to COVID-19?

Tuesday, 14 July 2020

Environmental historian Associate Professor Nancy Cushing has long been interested in the history of air pollution, particularly in once heavily polluted Newcastle. So when the bushfires ravaged New South Wales in late 2019/early 2020 and many people were talking about this level of smoke and bushfire as unprecedented, she wanted to see if that was actually the case.

bushfire smoke

Through her research Nancy found that the urban air pollution from the bushfire smoke was unprecedented. She talks about this in her episode in the Our Human Experience podcast series and also penned an article published in January in The Conversation about it.

She said: "Even for an historian of air pollution like me, the bushfire situation was a shock. This was not the first time Australia’s major cities have been shrouded in bushfire smoke. But the terrible air quality was unmatched in terms of severity, duration and extent."

When Nancy was conducting her air pollution research, she noted that the air quality apps revealed that cities in NSW and the ACT were amongst the most polluted in the world at times in December 2019 and January 2020, competing for the daily ranking of poorest air quality with Dhaka in Bangladesh, Delhi in India and a city she saw on the list but had not previously heard of: Wuhan in China.

In her history seminar series paper from March this year Nancy hypothesised based on what she had read in the medical literature that long term exposure to high levels of air pollution had left people in Wuhan more vulnerable to respiratory infections like COVID-19.

“It was not that air pollution caused the disease but that it could have been one of the factors that made it emerge so strongly in Wuhan rather than elsewhere.”

NSW Health statistics show a rise in respiratory illnesses in NSW through the bushfires, exceeding the rates of previous years. Nancy questioned in March whether air pollution exposure would similarly leave our population more vulnerable to coronavirus and she has been very pleased to see that so far, this seems not to be the case.

Overseas, however, various studies are finding a link between poor air quality and greater severity of COVID-19. The Guardian reports that ‘The research indicates that a small, single-unit increase in people’s long-term exposure to pollution particles raises infections and [hospital] admissions by about 10% and deaths by 15%.’

“I would like to see more research on the links between exposure to high levels of air pollution and the experience of COVID-19 in Australia.  If present, it could be yet another rationale for putting in place policy changes which work towards a reduction in the likelihood of a repeat of the Black Summer fires,” Nancy said.

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