Australia — Victoria’s top health officer has defended the decision to wait until almost a month after the Hazelwood coal mine fire began to upgrade the health warning for Morwell South.
There was speculation in Morwell and in the media on Friday morning that the Victorian Government was about to evacuate the entire town of 14,000.
But instead Dr Rosemary Lester is urging people over 65, children under school age, pregnant women and anyone with a pre-existing heart or lung condition to consider leaving town temporarily.
“We are not currently seeing serious health effects from the smoke, such as an increase in ambulance callouts or hospital attendances,” she said.
“Health impacts may change if vulnerable people continue to be exposed to smoke.”
At this stage officials say it is not an evacuation and they are making the recommendation as a precaution.
Locals joining reporters at a media conference on Friday were sceptical of Dr Lester’s confidence that the health of the broader community is unlikely to suffer as the crisis drags on.
“I’m 25-years-old, yesterday I spent five minutes in the smoke outside, I could not see for one hour,” one Morwell resident said.
Dr Lester replied: “Because we know now that the exposure is likely to continue we think that now is the right time to increase the advice to temporary relocation.”
Health risks of exposure unclear
Dr Lester acknowledges some of the risks surrounding exposure are not known.
“The evidence around medium-term exposure is unclear. You’re quite right there and we’ve been taking advice on that,” she said.
A leading health expert has told the ABC that a wider evacuation may be wise if the fire continues.
Queensland University of Technology professor Lidia Morawska is an expert on how air quality affects human health and says the situation in Morwell is serious.
“There’s been cases like this studied and studied for many decades now showing that exposure of a duration of a few days or two weeks can lead to mortality,” she said.
“So you can’t have a longer-term effect than this. There are definitely long term effects possible from this duration of exposure related to cardiac problems and respiratory problems.”
Professor Morawska says understanding the risks of exposure in relation to cancer is more complicated.
“Cancer develops much later after the exposure and whether an exposure of two weeks is sufficient to develop cancer – I don’t think there is a study which would be able to point out to this,” she said.
“But having said this we can’t exclude this.”
Given the uncertainty about the likely health effects, Professor Morawska says she would suggest people err on the side of caution and try to leave the area.
Government defends Dr Lester’s advice
Premier Denis Napthine says he has full confidence in Dr Lester’s advice, and that all of the Government’s decisions have been guided by experts.
“I as Premier of this state have enormous confidence in Dr Rosemary Lester,” he said.
“She is a long-standing, long-serving medical expert who’s provided expert advice to governments over many years.
“And to question her expertise I find a little bit galling.”
Late on Friday the Environment Protection Authority (EPA) issued a high-level smoke alert for the Latrobe Valley for Friday night and Saturday morning as a result of the Hazelwood mine fire.
A high-level alert means it is likely residents will experience heavy smoke overnight and into the morning, with visibility less than 10 kilometres due to high particle concentrations in the air.
Earlier, Dr Lester said there was no significant increase in the danger on Friday for those in Morwell South.
“This is not an evacuation. It’s an advice for temporary relocation until the air quality improves,” she said.
Some residents not happy with official response
Many Morwell residents have told the ABC they are frustrated by the lack of information they are being given of the health risks.
“What is it going to take for you in order to recommend the evacuation of Morwell? Is it a death? Is it a terminal illness for someone?” local resident Lisa Dourley said.
“We don’t know, as she has said today, what the health risks are in the medium-term.
“We know short-term what people are suffering – we don’t know what long-term effects are going to happen.”
Another resident said the smoke was starting to take its toll on the locals and Morwell needed to be evacuated.
“There are animals being treated with Ventolin. What does it tell you? Look around at the people in the street wearing masks every day, look at what is actually going on,” he said.
Dr Napthine denied suggestions that the decision to relocate residents was motivated by concerns about liability.
“Let me make it very clear: the decisions we’re making as a government certainly are not affected by any indication of cost or liability,” he said.
“What we are primarily about is the wellbeing of the people of Morwell and also about putting out this fire.”
He went on to condemn the person responsible for setting the fire and putting thousands of lives at risk.
“It absolutely galls me and angers me to red hot anger that somebody would put the community at risk by these acts of arson,” he said.
But Labor’s Gavin Jennings says vulnerable residents should have been evacuated weeks ago, and Friday’s warnings send more mixed-messages to locals.
“[There has been] a very mixed message from the Premier, the deputy Premier and the Government agencies today,” he said.
“[They should] get their act together as early as possible to give clear advice on these matters.”
Labor and the Greens are calling for a wide-ranging independent inquiry into the fire and the response to it.
Grants available to help residents relocate
The Department of Human Services says grants are available to help those who are moving, and the department will help individuals make plans to relocate.
Fire Services Commissioner Craig Lapsley says the crisis is far from over.
“We still believe if everything progresses well the best-case scenario is another 10 days before that fire is to a position that it won’t put up significant smoke or ash over Morwell,” he said.
Victoria’s Police Commissioner Ken Lay says an extra 30 officers will be called in to guard the homes of those who leave, but access to the area will not be restricted.
“We understand that the community will be somewhat unsettled by the fact that they need to leave their homes but we will be working very, very hard to keep those (properties) safe,” he said.
“We won’t be closing down the area.”
Greens leader Greg Barber says there needs to be a broad, independent examination of the crisis in Morwell.
“There’ll be dozens of little bureaucratic reviews which will come to light probably after the election,” he said.
“This has been a major debacle and an independent judicial review is the only way to get to the bottom of it all because we don’t want this to happen here or in some other coal mine next summer.”
Call to allow use of empty holiday homes
The town has been in the path of a choking stream of smoke coming from the fire at the Hazelwood coal mine for nearly three weeks.
A Latrobe City Councillor says the State Government should be doing more to help the residents.
Graeme Middlemiss says the Government should pay to evacuate the most vulnerable people.
“I just don’t know why we are leaving people in this atmosphere who are at risk from it,” he said.
As recently as Thursday the Government was calling on Victorians to give up their empty holiday houses to give those in the path of the smoke a break.
The main health concern surrounds exposure to small particulates found in the air and smoke.
The invisible particles, known as PM2.5, can penetrate the deepest part of the lungs and respiratory system.
A study published in the British Medical Journal last month found only a small increase in this particulate matter can lead to an increased risk of heart attacks and lung cancer.
The concentration of these particulates reached 280 micrograms per cubic metre in Morwell South on Thursday, more than 11 times Australia’s daily threshold.
The study’s lead researcher, Guilia Cesaroni from the Department of Epidemiology at Rome’s regional health service, studied more than 100,000 people in five European cities over a decade.
“We found an association between increased levels of PM2.5 and mortality and also with incidence of lung cancer,” she said.
Dr Cesaroni found an increase in annual exposure to PM2.5 of just 5 micrograms per cubic metre means a 13 per cent increased risk of heart attack.
She calls the Morwell reading of 280 micrograms per cubic metre “a huge level”.
Dr Cesaroni says it would lead to more hospital admissions and, if the area is largely populated, “an excess in mortality” if the readings continue for a month or more.
“For sure there will be an increase in the annual average, but at the moment I would be more worried about the immediate effect,” she said.