Discussion and conclusions

The Hazelwood mine fire undoubtedly caused significant distress to the local community. The smoke and ash produced by the fire resulted in a number of distressing adverse health effects. The majority of these health effects resolved when the fire was controlled, however a small portion of the community was still suffering during the Inquiry. Some people reported the development of new health conditions as a result of exposure to smoke and ash.

As detailed in Chapter 4.1 Health and wellbeing – background, the Latrobe Valley has an ageing population with a higher incidence of cardiovascular and respiratory disease. The area also has a high percentage of low-income households and a higher percentage of residents who have a disability. As a result, the Hazelwood mine fire added further insult to an already vulnerable community. To assist the community to recover from this incident and to improve health outcomes for the future, it would be beneficial for the Latrobe Valley to be the focus of renewed efforts to improve community health. This is discussed further in Chapter 4.6 Health response.

The Department of Health advised that there was not a significant increase in demand for health services during the fire, other than an increase in general practitioner presentations. The Board considers that the information collected and presented was not sufficiently complete for the Department of Health to make a full assessment of the physical, mental and social impacts of the short-term effects of the fire. Lack of a significant increase in health presentations to hospital is not an indication that the community was not suffering from distressing health conditions.

The Board agrees with Professor Campbell that the immediate health effects suffered by the community were likely due to smoke and ash produced by the Hazelwood mine fire. The symptoms suffered were generally consistent with what would be expected from exposure to the level of smoke produced by the mine fire.

The Board is concerned by the reports of children suffering from the effects of exposure to smoke. The evidence provided to the Board does not allow a conclusion about whether the symptoms suffered by the children were consistent with carbon monoxide exposure. However the Board accepts that there were adverse health effects due to smoke exposure.

The Board commends the Department of Health for commissioning the Rapid Health Risk Assessment of the potential health effects of the fire. However, the utility of the Rapid Health Risk Assessment would have been enhanced had it been available earlier to inform the Department of Health’s decision-making. It also would have been beneficial to provide the Rapid Health Risk Assessment findings to the community to address its request for more information about the potential adverse health effects of the exposure to smoke and ash.

The Board recommends that the Department of Health continue to monitor the physical and psychological health of the community. The Board commends the Department of Health for including psychological effects in the proposed long-term study. The proposed long-term health study will be discussed further in the next Chapter.

The Board supports the State’s proposal to undertake projects to understand health impacts and predict the movement of smoke from planned burns and bushfires.101