This Chapter examines the health effects that the smoke and ash produced by the Hazelwood mine fire had on the community, the likely cause of these health effects, and potential long-term health impacts.
Under its Terms of Reference, the Board of Inquiry must consider and report on the adequacy and effectiveness of the response by government agencies to the effects on, and the risks to, the health and wellbeing of communities affected by the Hazelwood mine fire.
The Latrobe Valley community, and in particular Morwell, reported suffering distressing adverse health effects from the Hazelwood mine fire, including sore and stinging eyes, headaches and blood noses. The majority of these symptoms resolved when smoke and ash from the mine fire dissipated, but some residents reported continuing symptoms. In addition to these symptoms, a small number of residents reported developing new health conditions as a result of exposure to smoke and ash during the mine fire. There were a number of vulnerable groups in the community who were particularly susceptible to the potential adverse health effects of the smoke and ash, namely those with pre-existing cardiovascular and respiratory conditions, pregnant women and unborn children, children and the elderly.
The Department of Health monitored the health impact of the mine fire on the community, including undertaking a Rapid Health Risk Assessment. The Department of Health determined that during the Hazelwood mine fire there was an initial increase in demand for general practitioners. However there was not a significant increase in attendances at emergency departments, or other hospital admissions.
The Board of Inquiry heard from a number of community members–through individual submissions, community consultations and evidence given at the Inquiry–who detailed the mine fire’s impact on their health and also their concerns about the potential for long-term adverse health impacts. Representatives from the Department of Health informed the Board about the impact of the mine fire on health services.
The Board engaged independent expert, Professor Donald Campbell, Professor of Medicine, Southern Clinical School, Monash University and Program Director, General Medicine Program, Monash Health to help it better understand the likely cause of the immediate adverse health effects suffered by the community, and the potential for long-term adverse health impacts due to exposure to smoke from the fire.
The Board recognises that the local community suffered extensive short-term adverse health impacts. The Board agrees with Professor Campbell that the probable cause of these adverse health impacts was the smoke and ash produced by the Hazelwood mine fire. The long-term adverse effects of exposure to the smoke and ash from the mine fire are unknown and are of great concern to the community.
The Board commends the Department of Health for commissioning the Rapid Health Risk Assessment and recommends that the Department continue to monitor the physical and psychological health of the community.