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Exposure to hazardous air pollution from the Hazelwood coalmine fire in Victoria has been linked to reduced lung function in people years after the 2014 fire, according to a new study.

Hazelwood coalmine fire has had lasting health effects on Latrobe valley residents, study finds

August 23, 2022

The Guardian / Donna Lu

Tue 29 Jun 2021

Research conducted four years after the mine fire found that adults who had been exposed to fine particulate matter (PM2.5) had decreased respiratory reactance, a measure of the stretchiness of the lungs.

The Hazelwood mine fire, which began when a bushfire burned into the brown coal reserve, burned for 45 days, resulting in plumes of smoke and ash over the neighbouring town of Morwell as well as other towns in the Latrobe valley, east of Melbourne.

The study, published in the journal Respirology, analysed the lung function of 346 adults living in Morwell at the time of the fire, grouped into low, medium or high levels of PM2.5 exposure. Their results were compared to 173 adults living in Sale, a nearby town the smoke did not reach.

Modelling from the CSIRO estimated individuals’ exposure during the fire to PM2.5 – particles which have a diameter of 2.5 micrometres or smaller, are breathed deep into the lungs and can enter into the bloodstream.

Lead researcher Prof Michael Abramson from Monash University said every increase in PM2.5 exposure by 10 micrograms per cubic metre was associated with a reduction in lung stretchiness equivalent to roughly four years of ageing.

“It’s probably not reversible,” Abramson said, adding that the association between exposure to particulate air pollution and lung stretchiness had never been observed before.

“These results should inform public health policies and planning for future events,” the study found.

“To know what it means in the longer term, we really have to go back and retest these people and see what happens over time.”

Tracie Lund, manager of Morwell Neighbourhood House and a Latrobe city councillor, said the local community would need “significant health support as the years go on”.

“You knew there were going to be long-term health impacts from that event,” said Lund. “Morwell was just left to suffer under a blanket of toxic ash.”

Lund recalls numerous calls with local residents in the first week of the fire, who reported sore throats, burning lungs, asthma and bronchitis. “It just went on and on,” she said. “I never want to live through anything like that again.”

Previous research concluded the fire likely contributed to 11 additional deaths in smoke-affected communities.

John, a Hazelwood North resident who did not want to disclose his full name, recalled the air in Morwell being “essentially unbreathable”.

John, who has a genetic condition that reduces his lung function to a capacity of 70%, said the respiratory impacts of the fire were disproportionately borne by people with pre-existing lung conditions.

“Clearly there’s going to be substantial health effects,” he said. “There’s no way you can redress lung damage. All you can do is hope to support people in other aspects of their health.”

Wendy Farmer, who founded the community group Voices of the Valley in response to the mine fire, said the respiratory impacts were likely not limited to Morwell.

“There’s still quite a large section of the community still suffering health impacts from the fire, both physically and mentally,” she said.

The study surveyed participants who lived in Morwell at the time of the fire, but did not include emergency responders or people who worked in the town but lived elsewhere in the Latrobe valley – people like Lund, and Farmer’s husband, who worked in the Hazelwood mine.

“That limits our ability to really understand how big the impact will be, and what is going to be needed to support people that were either here responding to that event, or that live here,” said Lund.

The lung function study forms part of a larger research project into the impacts of the Hazelwood mine fire, including on residents’ psychological and cardiovascular health, not only in Morwell but across the Latrobe valley.

“We are doing our best to put together the whole picture but that will take some time,” Abramson said.

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