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The perfect storm: temporal analysis of air during the world’s most deadly epidemic thunderstorm asthma (ETSA) event in Melbourne

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journal contribution
posted on 2023-11-14, 03:20 authored by D Price, KM Hughes, DW Dona, Philip TaylorPhilip Taylor, DAV Morton, S Stevanovic, F Thien, J Choi, P Torre, C Suphioglu
Background: There have been 26 epidemic thunderstorm asthma (ETSA) events worldwide, with Melbourne at the epicentre of ETSA with 7 recorded events, and in 2016 experienced the deadliest ETSA event ever recorded. Health services and emergency departments were overwhelmed with thousands requiring medical care for acute asthma and 10 people died. Objectives: This multidisciplinary study was conducted across various health and science departments with the aim of improving our collective understanding of the mechanism behind ETSA. Design: This study involved time-resolved analysis of atmospheric sampling of the air for pollen and fungal spores, and intact and ruptured pollen compared with different weather parameters, pollution levels and clinical asthma presentations. Methods: Time-resolved pollen and fungal spore data collected by Deakin AirWATCH Burwood, underwent 3-h analysis, to better reflect the ‘before’, ‘during’ and ‘after’ ETSA time points, on the days leading up to and following the Melbourne 2016 event. Linear correlations were conducted with atmospheric pollution data provided by the Environment Protection Authority (EPA) of Victoria, weather data sourced from Bureau of Meteorology (BOM) and clinical asthma presentation data from the Victorian Agency for Health Information (VAHI) of Department of Health. Results: Counts of ruptured grass pollen grains increased 250% when the thunderstorm outflow reached Burwood. Increased PM10, high relative humidity, decreased temperature and low ozone concentrations observed in the storm outflow were correlated with increased levels of ruptured grass pollen. In particular, high ozone levels observed 6 h prior to this ETSA event may be a critical early indicator of impending ETSA event, since high ozone levels have been linked to increasing pollen allergen content and reducing pollen integrity, which may in turn contribute to enhanced pollen rupture. Conclusion: The findings presented in this article highlight the importance of including ruptured pollen and time-resolved analysis to forecast ETSA events and thus save lives.


The authors wish to thank the Victorian Government, Department of Health and Bureau of Meteorology for funding. In addition, School of Life and Environmental Sciences, Deakin University and Institute for Mental and Physical Health and Clinical Translation (IMPACT) are acknowledged for funding this research.


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Therapeutic Advances in Respiratory Disease



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© The Author(s), 2023 This article is distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 License ( which permits non-commercial use, reproduction and distribution of the work without further permission provided the original work is attributed as specified on the Sage and Open Access pages (