Canberra at risk of thunderstorm asthma this pollen season, expert says

Pollen warning: Simon Haberle from Canberra Pollen Season said Canberra could have three to four days of conditions that could trigger thunderstorm asthma. Photo: Sitthixay Ditthavong
Pollen warning: Simon Haberle from Canberra Pollen Season said Canberra could have three to four days of conditions that could trigger thunderstorm asthma. Photo: Sitthixay Ditthavong

Canberra could experience up to four days of extreme conditions this pollen season that could trigger a potential thunderstorm asthma event, a leading expert has said.

Professor Simon Haberle from Canberra Pollen Count at the Australian National University said the capital has "three to four days" of extreme pollen conditions in a year, which combined with a thunderstorm, could produce a deadly thunderstorm asthma event.

"When you have the combination of a population centre and grassland, and we know spring brings on thunderstorms, and that combination means Canberra is susceptible," he said.

"It's difficult to say which Australian city is worse off, but areas in south-east Australia are more susceptible to these kind of events." 

While there was more awareness of the dangers of thunderstorm asthma in the community after the deadly incident in Victoria last year, Professor Haberle said it was difficult to predict when an incident could occur.

The Victorian thunderstorm asthma event in November resulted in nine deaths and was the largest of its kind recorded globally.

More than 4000 people were admitted to emergency departments as a result.

"When that event happened, people weren't prepared and not aware that this could happen to them," Professor Haberle said.

"Now that Melbourne had that experience, that experience is being translated into education and awareness, and with more people being aware of it, we can prevent a disaster." He said Canberra's conditions make it "the pollen capital of Australia", with a surge of pollen due to the ACT being surrounded by the grassland. Being an inland city with no ocean winds also help exacerbate pollen levels for asthma and hay fever sufferers in the capital.

Professor Haberle said it was these conditions combined with severe thunderstorms that led to minor thunderstorm asthma events in previous years. Canberra recorded thunderstorm asthma incidents in both 2010 and 2014.

"There were heightened admissions to emergency at Canberra hospital related to respiratory problems, and those were associated with major storm events on high-pollen days," he said.

Despite the forecast for the upcoming pollen season, ACT Health said Canberra's hospitals were prepared in the event of a thunderstorm asthma event.