The health impact of recent smoke haze in Canberra is likely to have been more severe in less-advantaged areas because those communities are not as able to prepare for extreme weather events.
Australian National University national centre for epidemiology and population health fellow Dr Aparna Lal said a preliminary analysis of recent air quality data showed geographic and economic inequalities in how Canberrans would experience periods of bushfire smoke haze.
She said there was a greater need for collaboration to address the growing health risks from climate change which disproportionately affected less-advantaged areas.
Readings from the ACT government's air quality monitoring stations in Florey, Monash and Civic laid over the ACT's index of education and occupation scores showed less-advantaged and more populous areas around the Florey and Monash stations experienced slightly worse air quality, including in the days leading up to hazardous levels.
But the effect of lower air quality was made even worse when communities struggled to afford measures to prevent its impact.
"These patterns suggest that even before we consider individual-level characteristics like age or sex or underlying chronic conditions that may increase the risk of adverse health impacts, at the whole of population level we are seeing an unequal access to economic resources," Dr Lal said.
"These differences could affect the ability of people to deal with such extreme events."
Dr Lal said the level of access communities had to air conditioners, purifiers and health services, largely driven by economic factors, would determine how susceptible communities were to climate-related health pressures.
"It's not just about the adverse health impacts of climate change post-event, it's the fact that they can't prepare and prevent and protect themselves, even though they know that an extreme event is coming, because they don't have the resources to do so," she said.
The relationship between a population's advantage level and its ability to prepare for extreme weather was important in understanding climate change's public health implications.
The air quality index rating reached nearly seven times the threshold considered hazardous at Florey last Saturday, more than double the highest level recorded during the 2003 Canberra bushfires.
The air quality index on Saturday at 6pm was more than 3.3 times above hazardous at all three stations.
Dr Lal said mapping air quality information against social indicators helped show the effect of extreme weather was unevenly distributed across a population. This was an important consideration for public health planning, she said.
"But there's also a variation in the number exposed. There's more people living in suburbs around Florey and Monash than there are around Civic. So it's not just about the actual values, it's about their variation in exposure to environmental pollution in terms of the number of people being exposed," Dr Lal said.
"There are very clear geographic differences in the distribution of economic resources. It's not to say that everyone in a socioeconomically disadvantaged area is going to be exposed to lower quality air, but it's to say that there are variations that we need to account for when we are planning either health policies or urban planning, especially for weather-related emergencies."
Dr Lal said climate change would also exacerbate other health effects across the ACT.
"We've also seen that in the latest drought there is a relationship between water-borne illnesses in the ACT and extended periods of drought conditions. Obviously it's not obviously as pronounced in the ACT because we're largely, compared to the rest of the country, fairly well off," she said.
Dr Lal said along with better integration of climate change science across government planning, Canberra's urban sprawl should be assessed against health indicators.
"As Canberra grows, and it's growing at a fairly fast pace, and we keep expanding to these outer suburbs, is it time to bring physical health impacts such as those related to smoke, those related to bushfires, into our urban planning as the community expands? Is that something we should, at some stage, be having? For sure," she said.
An annual climate health report published in the Medical Journal of Australia in November said climate change presented a significant risk to health and said sustained national action was required.
"The lack of Australian national policy to address threats of climate change to health - and the consequent failure to realise the enormous opportunities that doing so would afford our nation - is disappointing to say the least. This work is urgent and should be undertaken within a complex systems thinking framework," the report said.