Poor air quality caused by Hazelwood coalmine fire linked to long term health impacts

A photograph of firefighters and a helicopter fighting a smoking fire at the Hazelwood Coal mine in Victoria.
Smoking fire at the Hazelwood open-cut mine in Melbourne (AAP Image/Incident Control Centre hazelwood).

A study conducted on the 2014 Hazelwood fires has revealed dangerous long-term health effects of coalmine fires on communities following increased exposure to toxic particles known as PM2.5. 

PM2.5 particles are extremely small particles that are suspended in air and can easily enter the lungs and bloodstream once inhaled. Researchers have found that there are many negative health effects associated with exposure to PM2.5.  

Short-term exposure to PM2.5 can lead to eyes, nose and throat irritations and an increased risk of lung diseases and heart attacks. Whereas long-term exposure over several years can lead to reduced lung function, development of life threatening cardiovascular and respiratory diseases and even a reduced life expectancy. 

The research focused on the 2014 Hazelwood coal mine fire in Latrobe Valley, Victoria, ignited by nearby bushfires. Coalmine fires are harder to put out than bushfires. This fire burned for 45 days covering neighbouring areas in smoke and ash. In some parts of the region, such as the town of Morwell, 24-hour PM2.5 levels exceeded the Australian air quality standard of 25 micrograms per cubic metre on 23 of 45 days, sometimes reaching levels 19 times the limit.

The researchers compared hospital records of the communities near the coalmine to investigate the impact of the fire on residents’ health. 

Photograph of a hill on fire at night.
Hazelwood Coalmine fire (Environment Victoria)

The study, published in the Journal of Environmental Research, found that a few weeks of exposure to the toxic smoke from a coal mine fire can cause respiratory and cardiovascular problems in the long-term. Residents exposed to the fire had a higher chance of requiring emergency medical attention for ischaemic heart disease for up to two and a half years after the fire. It also found that an increase in PM 2.5 of 10 micrograms a cubic metre was associated with a 10% increase in respiratory presentation over five years. 

Overall the study highlights the short and long term dangers of exposure to toxic PM2.5 smoke and urges the government and communities to not downplay the risks and pay serious attention to the health and environmental impacts of bush and coalmine fires, especially because climate change will result in longer fires seasons.

Guardian Australia’s report on the research includes further quotes from corresponding author, Yuming Guo.

By Kobra Sayyadi.

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