5 September 2017

Health impacts of Hazelwood fire still linger

Cardio Mental Health Respiratory

The impacts of the Hazelwood coal mine fire, which raged for 45 days in 2014, are showing up in a higher burden of respiratory disease in the worst smoke-affected town of Morwell in Victoria’s Latrobe Valley.

The first findings from a survey by the Victorian government-commissioned Hazelwood Health Study show adult residents of Morwell have been diagnosed subsequently with asthma at a higher rate than people in Sale, a similar community further from the blaze.

“Morwell residents were more likely to report that a doctor had diagnosed them with asthma since the mine fire.  Also, among asthmatics, symptoms were reported to be more severe than in Sale,” the study’s principal investigator Professor Michael Abramson said.

Chest and nose irritation, consistent with chronic bronchitis and rhinitis, was also more common among Morwell residents, the survey found.

Survey participants in Morwell were one and a half times more likely to have been diagnosed with high blood pressure and seven times more likely to have been diagnosed with a heart attack.

The survey, drawing on self-reported responses from 3096 Morwell residents and 960 Sale residents between May 2016 and February 2017, also found a higher prevalence of diagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder in Morwell.

Professor Abramson said this was the first available evidence of lingering adverse cardiovascular, respiratory and psychological effects from the fire on local residents.

Sale was used as the comparison in the adult survey because it had less exposure to the mine fire smoke but was similar to Morwell in size, location and population characteristics.

A judicial inquiry in 2015 found pollution from the fire “most likely” caused an unknown number of deaths, after a study commissioned by local residents said as many as 11 people may have died as a result.

However, evidence of health impacts is still being put together.

Professor Abramson’s group also released findings indicating toxic smoke containing fine particulate matter from the fire brought a leap in emergency presentations and hospital admissions for respiratory distress during the fire period in February-March 2014.

“Attributable to the coal mine fire-related pollutants, there were estimated to be 14 emergency presentations for asthma and COPD, 22 emergency presentations for all respiratory diseases and 132 for all conditions included in the analysis,” Professor Abramson said.

Morwell residents accounted for the majority of these presentations.

The study showed some evidence that fine particulate matter (less than 2.5 microns) was “significantly associated” with increased risks of emergency presentations for asthma and COPD, and all respiratory disease, but not for cardiovascular disease, Professor Abramson said.

Newcastle GP and public health researcher Dr Ben Ewald said the findings showed a statistically significant increase in asthma and emphysema during the fire period, consistent with the “known acute toxicity of fine particle pollution”. 

“The literature points to a larger chronic toxicity from fine particle pollution which this study was not designed to detect,” Dr Ewald, a member of Doctors for the Environment, said. 

“Emergency responses to such a fire must include protection of vulnerable populations by early evacuation if the fire cannot be controlled within a day,” he said. 

“The reduction in air pollution risks will be just one of the benefits as Australia moves away from reliance on coal for electricity production.” 

The judicial inquiry found there were “shortcomings” in how the state Liberal government and health department communicated with the Latrobe Valley community about the health impacts of the blaze at the brown coal mine that served the now-defunct Hazelwood power station.

It also said the Department of Health had been defensive in response to community concerns.