As fires in Australia claimed thousands of homes and at least 28 lives, smoke became a pervasive part of everyday life.
But smoke doesn’t affect everyone equally. And vulnerable residents, such as the elderly and the sick, have faced additional risks from the smog that made its way into homes and even hospitals.
So did Gemma Carey’s unborn baby.
Carey, an associate professor at the University of New South Wales who studies public health, wrote about the dread of being pregnant under the Australian capital of Canberra’s smoky, orange sky.
“I had been staying inside with the smoke, knowing all of the health risks for my baby,” she tells Here & Now. As someone who studies health, she was hyper-aware of the effect that both smoke and stress hormones can have on a pregnancy, including raising the risk of preterm birth, low birth weight and developmental issues.
But there were also bigger questions that plagued her, as she wrote for The Guardian.
“[I was] thinking, ‘What is it going to be like for this child to grow up in this world?’ ” she says. “Is this going to be every summer in Australia now, in parts of America, too? Is this the new normal?”
After writing her first piece, Carey went for a routine ultrasound, which found no heartbeat.
“We were devastated, absolutely devastated,” she said of the miscarriage. “But it is this very complex mixture of sadness, guilt and relief as well. And I think there's a lot of people who kind of have that hard-to-pull-apart set of emotions around having children at this particular point in time.”
She says her experience illustrates the fragile points of Australia’s public health system — and the big questions around bringing children into the world as it sprints towards catastrophic climate collapse.
On being pregnant during “the apocalypse”
“I think that because of my research, what I do for work, I was — at the start of the smoke — a lot more aware of the health effects than other people. And being pregnant as well. So, there is a particular protocol that we're worried about in bushfire smoke. It’s particles that are smaller than 2.5 micrometers because they can make their way into your bloodstream, and they're particularly bad for unborn babies. So I was a little bit more conscious of that when we had the smoke start. And when it started it came and went, but very quickly, we ended up in a situation where we were 20, 30 times hazardous smoke levels of those particles in Canberra, and we had visibility of a few meters. The sky glowed orange. It was really like being in, I mean, we just called it, ‘We're in the apocalypse.”
On what life has been like during the fires
“One of the things that really shocked us was how quickly you acclimatize to incredibly dangerous air conditions. So we would be sitting in a friend's house thinking, ‘Can't smell any smoke in here anymore, it's fine.’ And we'd plug it in air purifier and find that we were sitting in double hazardous smoke conditions in someone's living room. The infrastructure here and probably in most places just isn't set up for that kind of air quality. So it has made its way into all of the operating theaters in the major hospitals. And we have had stories of people being put under anesthetic in a room full of bushfires smoke, which I can only imagine is really terrifying. And babies being born into smoke, there have been stories of babies coughing as soon as they're born as well.
“We have had stories of people being put under anesthetic in a room full of bushfires smoke … stories of babies coughing as soon as they're born.”Gemma Carey
On the role of inequity
“People like me who have the knowledge and the income were able to go and quickly get an air purifier. But I've spoken to people who couldn't afford to and found that, you know, they and their kids have been sitting around in 600 [pm 2.5] counts. But there was also, you saw that [inequity] in knowledge about what to do as well. ... People like me knew a bit in advance and were taking more precautions. ... One man I spoke to said, ‘My wife is past her due date, and we can't leave now. And if someone had just explained to us how bad this could get, or how bad this kind of pollution is for you, you know, we would have left the city earlier, but we're trapped here now.' Which is the other thing that happened here is that all our roads were cut off and the airport was cut off ... and Canberra was completely surrounded by fire, and there was no way out from the smoke.”
On the logistical challenges she faced after realizing she had miscarried
“In my pregnancy ultrasound, where we didn't find a heartbeat, the room just was full of smoke even then. Which is, you know, very, very stressful environment. So as soon as we got home from the ultrasound, I went straight into, 'How do I get out of this city?' Because I have the privilege of being able to do that. I have networks, I have money where I can fly to another city. ... I flew to Melbourne and got the medical care that I needed. But I am an absolute minority. Most people in Canberra wouldn't have been able to do that. I happen to know doctors in Melbourne who could help me. And it's not just the operating rooms are full of smoke, but the MRI machines stopped working for six or eight weeks because it's the smoke alarms on them were going off. So, it's affected the whole health care system. There's no escaping it.”
On whether she’ll get pregnant again
“A lot of people around me here after these fires are asking themselves that question and have raised it with me. I think where I've sort of landed on it is that there is no right or wrong. It's a very personal question about what's your tolerance for risk, and your view of whether you can give your child a good life, in the face of what's happening. At the moment I still fall on the side that I can, but this experience has really shifted me along. I think I'm much more unsure and on the edge of that decision than I ever have been before.”
This segment aired on January 20, 2020.