Thunderstorm asthma risk for ACT ahead of pollen season

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."

The pollen expert 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.

"This is at the front of the minds of government health departments, and we've been looking at ways to improve the monitoring of pollen."

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

A spokeswoman said emergency departments had strategies in place to prepare for a potential influx of patients experiencing severe symptoms.

"Epidemic thunderstorm asthma is a rare phenomenon, and while we have plans in place to respond to health emergencies, it is very unlikely to occur in any particular season," the spokeswoman said.

"Predicting such an event is difficult. The overwhelming number of of times there is thunderstorm activity, even in periods of high pollen, there is no thunderstorm asthma event."

Canberra Pollen Count is working with ACT Health to monitor pollen levels throughout the ACT as the season continues.

The Canberra pollen count app is used by more than 11,000 people, which provides daily updates on pollen conditions throughout the area.

More recently, the ACT government launched the Air Rater app, based on a similar service in Tasmania, which is being used by more than 1000 people.

The service allows users to upload data on their symptoms to help identify factors in the environment that may impact their hayfever.

Professor Haberle said the best way for people with asthma or hayfever to manage their condition during high-pollen months was to monitor outdoor conditions.

This story Thunderstorm asthma risk for ACT ahead of pollen season first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.