Thursday, March 26, 2020

Smoke from Australia's bushfires killed far more people than the fires did, study says

Smoke is particulate pollution and the study below looked at a standard measure of that pollution: PM2.5. And there is a great deal of prior research on pollution of that sort. 

The conventional assumption is of course that inhaling such pollution is bad for you.  The Australian experience would however seem to show that is is NOT very bad for you.  Australians were not dying like flies while experiencing it. They seemed to be going about their business in their usual way, in fact.

So how have the authors below got their apparently alarming findings:

Modelling garbage.  They had no real data on the health of  Australians at the time at all. They just used conventional assumptions to estimate what the effects would have been. But the conventional assumptions are crap, to use a technical term.  The existing research on particulate air pollution (PM2.5.)shows effects that range between no effect and effects that are so weak that no confidence can be placed in them. See here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here and here

The conventional assumptions take the occasional tiny effects that turn up in some research to build a great castle on, if you will forgive my prepositional impropriety. So you get statements that pollution causes such and such an ailment, without mentioning the very fragile evidential basis for such a posited effect.

So after that useless modelling it will be interesting if the authors do something more useful in the future -- such as comparing actual recorded deaths and morbidity during the smoke affected period with the same period in the previous much clearer year.  My hypothesis -- based on the actual prior research -- is that deaths and disease in the same period of the two years will differ trivially, if at all.

The "study" is just a grab for government funding

Smoke pollution that blanketed Australia’s south-east for many months during the bushfire crisis may have killed more than 400 people, according to the first published estimate of the scale of health impacts – more than 10 times the number killed by the fires themselves.

The figures, published in the Medical Journal of Australia, are “definitely alarming”, according to Chris Migliaccio, who studies the long-term effects of wildfire smoke at the University of Montana in Missoula and was not involved in the research.

Lead author Fay Johnston, an epidemiologist at the University of Tasmania in Hobart, estimates 80% of Australia’s population of about 25 million was blanketed by smoke this summer.

“The fires were unprecedented in Australia’s history, in terms of vast amounts of smoke, the huge populations affected by the smoke and the long duration,” she said.

Sydney experienced 81 days of poor or hazardous air quality in 2019, more than the total of the previous 10 years combined.

“When you’re affecting millions of people in a small way, there are going to be enough people at high enough risk that you’re going to see really measurable rises in these health effects,” Johnston said.

As data on hospital admissions, deaths and ambulance callouts was not yet available to researchers, Johnston and her team instead modelled the likely medical consequences of the pollution, which is the “the only other way to get a quick ballpark idea of the health impacts,” she said.

To come up with a picture of the overall health burden of smoke exposure, they looked at existing data on death rates and hospital admissions to get a baseline. They then modelled how the known levels and extent of smoke exposure across the southeast, during the height of the crisis from 1 October to 10 February, would have affected these.

Their results estimate that over this period there were 417 premature deaths, 3,151 extra hospitalisations for cardiorespiratory problems and 1,305 additional attendances for asthma attacks. This compares to 33 who reportedly died as a direct result of the bushfires.

Many of the deaths and hospitalisations are likely to have been older patients with heart disease or lung problems, such as chronic bronchitis or emphysema – but severe asthma attacks will likely have resulted in deaths in younger people too, Johnston said.

In patients with pre-existing cardiorespiratory issues, smoke exposure promotes inflammation, stresses the body and makes blood more likely to clot, increasing the risk of a heart attack. “In someone at high risk, subtle changes due to stress … can be the precipitating factor for a very serious or terminal event,” she said.

Guy Marks, a respiratory physician and epidemiologist at the University of New South Wales in Sydney who was not involved in the research, said the findings “highlights the importance of the health consequences” and is useful in estimating fire-related deaths that may not have been recognised as the result of smoke exposure.

The findings concur with previous studies of the health consequences of wildfire smoke in North America, but the numbers “are more drastic, potentially as a result of the unprecedented nature of the exposure,” Migliaccio said. He added that while previous studies found increases in hospital visits, the addition of large numbers of premature deaths in the Australian study is significant and disturbing.

Migliaccio said that due to climate change increasing the frequency and severity of wildfires “these types of exposures are increasing in number and intensity, making this kind of research vital.”

To look into just such effects, a consortium of 10 air pollution researchers from across Australia, led by Marks and including Johnston, have already put up their hands for $3m in government funding, which became available in the wake of the crisis.

The research proposal, funding of which has yet to be confirmed, aims to plug significant gaps in knowledge about the health impacts of bushfire smoke and how these might be mitigated.

Marks says that questions he and his colleagues hope to address include whether there is anything unique about health effect of air pollution caused by bushfires, what the long-term effects of exposure are, and what the effects might be on newborn babies and pregnant women.

The researchers – all members of a collaborative consortium, The Centre for Air Pollution, Energy and Health Research (CAR), funded by Australia’s National Health and Medical Research Council – also hope to study whether it’s possible to filter air to make indoor refuges safe from pollution, and if public health advice can be improved.


Coronavirus: How much of our village do we burn to contain this?

Australia is trapped in the ultimate vicious circle of the COVID-19 threat — governments are impos­ing a massive recession on the economy and liquidating jobs on a huge scale, with inevitable conflicts among political leaders about the depth of the pain they impose.

The core calculation is that the community is better off with mass job losses than seeing the hospital system in intolerable crisis. Put brutally, the calculation is that people are better off unemployed than sick or dead.

The reality, however, is these are different groups: it is the young and middle-aged who are losing their jobs, while those most likely to get sick are the retired elderly, often with existing health issues. The Morrison government’s fiscal measures so far are geared to small-business jobs and equity, with many vulnerable people getting­ job and income assistance.

That is essential. Australia is a far richer nation than in the 1930s, with the better-off able to cope for a long time by accessing their saving­s and wealth, a reality highlighting the need for the financially powerful — banks, landlords, cashed-up big companies — to meet their wider social responsib­ilities. The debate over equity and “who carries the burden” will be critical and dangerous.

Yet the events of the past several­ days expose the dilemma: this is not a crisis where the un­precedented action from the government and the Reserve Bank can restore confidence, as occurs in a purely economic or financial crisis. The total fiscal and monetary response from the authorities is greater than 10 per cent of GDP and will continue to grow. We have seen nothing like this intervention in our lifetimes. In an ortho­dox downturn it would have a dramatically beneficial impact.

Yet it is not enough. It cannot suffice. Nor will a third fiscal package suffice, despite its necessity. The packages are definitely worthwhile but economic instruments cannot beat a pandemic.

This is not to belittle the impressive bipartisan parliamentary session­ on Monday that passed an expanded $84bn stimulus support package — a tribute to both the Coalition and Labor — while the US congress was still squabbling over the scope of its package. Here is genuine good news: our parliament stood up. It offered an ­example to the nation, rare given its dismal efforts in recent years.

The agonising contradiction in our public policy can hardly be comprehended: the government is pumping money to sustain jobs and activity while its health measures throw demand off the cliff and keep consumers in home detention. The economic arm fights the health arm, a contradiction unavoidable yet deeply destructive.

The Morrison government and RBA interventions are essential yet markets will not stabilise, rising unemployment cannot be checked and falling demand cannot be reversed until progress is seen on the health front. This is the roadblock to the future. As Scott Morrison told parliament, the nation faces its gravest test since World War II.

Yet evidence of progress against the virus is limited. Infections nationwide exceed 2000, doubling every three or four days. There is growing evidence the health response — on which everything depends — has been inadequate. The next three weeks should offer a clearer judgment.

Defending the progress, Health Minister Greg Hunt said the nation­ has prevented “the onset of the spread”. The delay has bought time for the hospital and medical system to better prepare. The seven deaths in the first 1000 cases are fewer than in most other countries (the toll is now eight). Hunt said that with 147,000 tests our testing levels were high, and positive results, at only 1.2 per cent, compared with 13 per cent for the US and 5 per cent for Britain.

The fear, however, is that Australia’s response has been too late, too geared to mitigation not suppression, too focused on a strategy for the hospital system rather than a strategy to shock the public and force behavioural change. The government plan has been to slow the virus but keep the economy running. This policy spans a six-month timeline, yet it is fraying. What happened last Sunday was an outbreak of panic and urgency from Victoria and NSW with premiers Dan Andrews and Gladys Berejiklian lurching towards more radical economic shutdowns, despera­te to check the spiral of infections in their states. Morrison wound back some of their push that evening.

Two events symbolise the failure — the Bondi Beach fiasco and the Ruby Princess blunder when passengers, some sick, were allowe­d to disembark in Sydney, the upshot on Tuesday being 133 cases from the boat. The conclusion is that governments have not been sufficiently ruthless because the health advice was not suffic­iently forward leaning.

The national cabinet agreed on Sunday night on a stage-one nation­wide shutdown from Monda­y covering a range of non-essential services — clubs, pubs, restaur­ants, cafes, gyms. Non-essential­ travel should not occur. The AFL and NRL seasons are suspended. These collective decis­ions threw thousands out of work. This is not just a job crisis, it is a life crisis. Many people are losing the social reference points that sustained them. How much of our village­ do we burn to escape the virus?

The speed of the virus exceeds the speed of human decision-­making. Governments are like a retreating army, surrendering one fallback position after another. With each fallback, the economy shrinks further. The final retreat is social and economic lockdown. Talking with ministers on Monday they agreed the core economy — factories, construction, manufacturing, mining — must stay operational, there must be limits on how much of the economy is closed. Tougher action seemed certain to emerge from the national cabinet on Tuesday night. Stage two of the shutdown might be rolled out. Does it make sense to lock down the entire Australian economy? No, not yet. Morrison warns that decisions will have long-run consequences. One thing is obvious: the economy cannot be locked down for six months. The real issue the national cabinet should address is where to draw the line as measures are tightened.

Having blundered in his early response, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has gone towards lockdown: Britons will only be allowe­d to leave their home for essential­ shopping, daily exercise, medical needs and limited work travel. This is an admission of earlier containment failure.

One task Australia needs to improve is dramatising the message. Forget the nonsense about putting a non-politician in charge to speak the truth. There is no such person and no such truth. Opposition health spokesman Chris Bowen said: “It is impossible to overreact to this crisis.” A better line, perhaps, is that “it is impossible to exaggerate the warnings”. And the warnings have not been strong enough.

On the economic side, the government knows another package is necessary, and probably soon. It needs to address larger business, that is, businesses with a turnover above $50m. These companies carry individual clout. If some fell over, the consequences would be dire. The government needs to think of measures that offer permanent tax relief and investment incentives for the companies that make a difference, and extend its concept of the bridge to a corporate tax policy that endures.

The final aspect of the vicious circle is that the longer the economy is put in the freezer, the more permanent damage will be done. There will be a recovery but it will take years. The US didn’t properly recover from the Great Depression until World War II. US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin warns unemployment there could hit 20 per cent. Josh Frydenberg said our Treasury has costed about a million Australians getting the new coronavirus supplement payment. Australia faces the grim prospect of a peak in unemployment over the past half century.

Don’t think politics has been suspended. On Monday Labor did two things — voted for the package but outlined a critique of the government, saying its measures were too slow, with too many gaps and needed to be implemented faster with guarantees for workers. This policy split will be pivotal at the next election.


Outback bonanza on hold

MAJOR projects across out-back Queensland worth almost $3 billion — which could create jobs and change the fortunes of hard-hit country towns — are sitting on the drawing board, a major pipeline report has revealed. Outback Queensland covers two-thirds of the state but has just a few hundred million dollars of funded infrastructure projects, the annual report card by the Queensland Major Contractors Association and the Infrastructure Association of Queensland says.

But with the global heat on to move to renewables, outback Queensland and its 82,513 residents could be sitting on a new-age gold mine with "significant mineral resources and value-added processing which would support global efforts to move to a clean energy economy including bauxite/alumina/aluminium, nickel, copper, cobalt, silver, lead, zinc and rare earths metals, particularly in the North West Minerals Province centred around Mount Isa and Clon-curry", the report says.

It is also the site of some of the state's biggest planned renewable energy projects, including the Aldoga Solar Farm, worth $120 million. While the solar farm is funded, a long list of big projects are still on the drawing board, including the Kidston Solar Project Stage 2 ($140m), Kidston Transmission Project ($100m) and the Kidston Pumped Hydro Storage Project ($200m) along with the massive Copperstring Transmission Line worth $1.5 billion.

QMCA boss Jon Davies said a big impediment to developing the North West Minerals Province was the State Government-owned rail line which is susceptible to floods.

"There's big opportunities for developing the North West Minerals Province," he said. "There are plans to upgrade (the rail line). That is an area that the government could look at expediting."

Without government support, the huge swath of state remains captive to the mining and commodities market, with 94 per cent of projects unfunded. "In 2019-20 there is only $70m in funded activity, while $225m remains unfunded," the report says.

"Funded activity only peaks at $82m in 2022-23, supported by a section of the $238m Mount Isa to Rockhampton Corridor Upgrade and the $120m Aldoga Solar Farm,"

The report says the outback region has the lowest ratio of "funded to unfunded" major project work in Queensland. "Ninety-four per cent of activity in the pipeline is currently unfunded," it says. "The negative outlook ... is further highlighted by the proportion of unfunded project activity which is considered 'unlikely' — more than 50 per cent of the $3bn unfunded total."

From the Brisbane "Sunday Mail" of 22.3.20

I don't know if my granddaughter will remember me when this all ends

By Mick Barnes, a resident in a Sydney aged-care home.

Lockdown they call it. They could have said clink, the jug, stir, the slammer, nick, the calaboose, or any number of racy euphemisms. Or Lockup, because that’s what they’re doing, locking us up, without a trial, they’re taking away our liberty. They don’t even have to round us up to impound us. We were already there, captive but not yet prisoners.

OK, COVID-19 must be contained if it is to be beaten. But to find yourself locked up on your 84th birthday is deflating, humiliating, when you’ve done nothing more antisocial than hobble down the treacherous street, a hazard to younger pedestrians.

There are 200,000 of us in aged-care Lockdown. A lot of us take it personally. What will I do without my beautiful, endearing Veronica? She’s eight months old and we’re cut off by the curfew. She’s reached that fascinating stage ... she gives me a long steady stare when I come into view and gradually breaks into the most beatific smile, holding me in a state of suspended ecstasy, a state of shared love. Her tiny hand reaches out and grasps my finger.

We tried bonding at a distance yesterday. Her parents parked the car nearby and Veronica, in her capsule, locked her eyes on mine. The magic smile lingered, turned perplexed. Why didn’t I come closer? I don’t know when we’ll be within hugging distance again. Grandkids are barred entry and nobody has any idea how long Lockdown will last. I hope she remembers me when the virus mist lifts.

Inside prison, the sombre mood is tinged with anger; contempt for what’s happening outside. A lot of us are old enough to remember The War, remember how we pulled together to fight the common enemy. We remember when “a fair go” meant that for everyone; it was not a hollow catchcry of the political class.

We’re disgusted at the selfish greed the virus has exposed. The Dunny Wars over toilet paper, the rich who cleared out the supermarkets to stock their freezers. There’s loathing here for those cretins who posed as carers to crash the pensioner-only hour at supermarkets. I remember my aunt in World War II giving away her food ration coupons to a poor family over the road.

"What a miserable nation we’ve become," a frail little woman pushing her walker says. Nobody argues with her.


 Posted by John J. Ray (M.A.; Ph.D.).    For a daily critique of Leftist activities,  see DISSECTING LEFTISM.  To keep up with attacks on free speech see Tongue Tied. Also, don't forget your daily roundup  of pro-environment but anti-Greenie  news and commentary at GREENIE WATCH .  Email me  here

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