Health effects on the community

IMMEDIATE ADVERSE PHYSICAL EFFECTS

The adverse health impacts of the Hazelwood mine fire were significant. The Board heard that from the first day of the fire, residents reported experiencing headaches, sore throats, and were feeling sick.1 This progressed to sinus and respiratory symptoms.2 Residents attributed these symptoms to the smoke and ash in and around Morwell and the Latrobe Valley.3

The Board heard evidence from a number of community witnesses and received submissions from a number of individuals who reported a variety of physical symptoms suffered during the mine fire.

The symptoms included:

  • headaches
  • nausea and vomiting
  • sore and stinging eyes
  • epistaxis (blood noses)
  • shortness of breath
  • raised blood pressure
  • tight chest
  • sneezing
  • coughing
  • tiredness
  • raspy voice
  • sore throat
  • mouth ulcers
  • rash
  • diarrhoea
  • chest pain
  • sinusitis
  • ear infection
  • gastric upset
  • fatigue/lethargy
  • confusion
  • decrease in concentration
  • unusual/metallic taste in mouth
  • loss of appetite
  • bleeding gums.4

Ms Lisa Wilson, Gippsland Homeless Network Coordinator at Quantum, provided a statement to the Board, which described her and her partner’s symptoms:

By the second week I was experiencing some difficulty breathing and whistling in my breath… We noticed a change almost immediately on relocating. My partner and I were able to sleep better. We no longer woke up feeling as though our mouths were full of mucous.5

Ms Julia Browell of Morwell reported to the Board: ‘I became very ill. [I] had major problems breathing, with very sore lungs, throat, ulcers on my tongue & roof of mouth, skin rashes from the incessant dust, diarrhoea, nausea with periods of semi-consciousness and major chest pain.’6

On 2 March 2014 at a meeting of local community group Voices of the Valley, a survey of residents’ medical symptoms, in the context of the smoke, was conducted.7 A total of 341 people participated in the survey. The most commonly reported symptoms were flu-like (running nose, sore throat, sinus problems, headaches, itchy eyes). The second most commonly reported symptoms were respiratory in nature, including shortness of breath, wheezing and asthma.8

The Australian Nursing and Midwifery Federation also submitted a survey of its members (living and working in Morwell and the Latrobe Valley) to the Board.9 The survey demonstrated that over 60 per cent of those surveyed suffered adverse health effects during the period that the mine fire was burning.10 The most common symptoms reported included respiratory and cardiovascular problems, nose bleeds, nausea, headaches, sore/itchy eyes, cough, hypertension and mental health issues. Despite this, only 25 per cent of those who experienced symptoms sought medical attention.11

The Board heard that most people found relief from symptoms when they relocated to areas not affected by smoke and ash, but when they returned to smoke-affected areas, their symptoms returned.12 Ms Julie Brown of Morwell submitted that:

…when we returned to Morwell the next afternoon, 23rd February and within 30 minutes of getting into town my husband and children were wheezing and I had a headache.13

Mr Daniel Caffrey of Morwell informed the Board in his written submission: ‘I can now honestly say that my general health has improved since the smoke stopped.’14 Some residents continue to suffer symptoms. Ms Wendy Sands of Morwell reported that ‘even now… 3 months after the initial fire, I am affected by these problems almost daily. I am worried about my health and the health of my family.’15