Potential Long Term Health Effects

The Board is aware that there is a strong concern in the community about the potential long-term health impacts of exposure to smoke and ash from the Hazelwood mine fire.94 Ms Maria Marino of Morwell told the Board: ‘we were concerned about the long-term health issues arising due to exposure to toxic ash and smoke.’95 Ms Tessie Jordan of Morwell told the Board: ‘I am also worried about the long-term health effects. Who knows what might happen five years down the track?’96

The Department of Health and the EPA agreed that managing the health and environmental impacts of the Hazelwood mine fire was challenging, as there is a knowledge gap about the health effects of medium-term exposure to smoke and ash from a fire in a coal mine.97 Dr Torre advised the Board that ‘there are significant gaps in the scientific understanding of the effects exposure to fine particles such as PM2.5 at the levels recorded in and around Morwell as a result of the mine fire on public health.’98

A primary concern is the period of time that residents were living with ashy, smoky conditions. Professor Campbell advised the Board that people with pre-existing cardiovascular and respiratory conditions are particularly susceptible to potential adverse long-term health effects when exposed to ozone, PM2.5 and larger particles. In particular they are susceptible to an aggravation or progression of their underlying condition, an increased risk of lung cancer and potential effects on coagulation, which could result in an increased risk of arrhythmias, morbidity, hospital admissions and death.99 He further advised that there was a risk that the general population could develop medium to long-term effects from the exposure to PM2.5 and ozone, including but not limited to the development of respiratory conditions, effects on cardiac conduction, increased risk of heart attack, stroke and lung cancer, long-term cognitive decline and psychosocial effects.100

The Department of Health has committed to undertake a long-term health study into the potential long-term health impacts of smoke and ash from the mine fire on affected communities. This is discussed further in Chapter 4.6 Health response.