Community concern leads to research shaping disaster response

  • Burnt landscape with fire hoses spraying

[Image: Keith Pakenham, Country Fire Authority]

Matthew Carroll
By
Dr Matthew Carroll
Co-Principal Investigator,
Hazelwood Health Study;
Senior Research Fellow, Monash Rural Health
Issue
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In February 2014, bushfire embers ignited a fire in the Morwell open-cut coal mine adjacent to the Hazelwood power station, in south-east Victoria. The resultant Hazelwood mine fire burned for six weeks, despite the extensive efforts of more than 7000 firefighters. The town of Morwell, and the wider Latrobe Valley region, was cloaked in dense smoke for much of that time, leading to reports of physical symptoms in the community including sore and stinging eyes, coughing, shortness of breath, headaches, chest pain, fatigue, mouth ulcers, nosebleeds and rashes.

These concerns prompted a petition, signed by more than 25,000 people, calling for a study into the long-term health impacts of the mine fire for the local community and wider region. In response to these community concerns, the Victorian Department of Health funded the wide-ranging Hazelwood Health Study that is looking at heart and lung disease, cancer and mental health problems, including among vulnerable groups such as infants and children, young people and older people, as well as the impacts on community wellbeing more broadly.

Funded for 10 years in the first instance, the Hazelwood Health Study is one of the largest environmental health studies of its kind in the world. The multi-institutional study is led by Monash University, in collaboration with Federation University, the University of Tasmania and others.

Now in its ninth year, the study has shown a range of impacts from the mine fire, justifying the concerns of the community at the time and inviting a rethink of the way public health authorities respond to fire and smoke events in the future.

The findings reported to date, attributable to exposure to the mine fire smoke, include:

  • increases in mental-health-related consultations, prescriptions, ambulance call-outs and hospital admissions during the mine fire
  • a 62 per cent increase in risk of death from cardiovascular conditions in the six months after the fire in Morwell
  • a higher risk of pregnant women developing gestational diabetes
  • increased dispensing of antibiotics and steroid creams, use of asthma medications, and visits to general practitioners and emergency departments for very young children
  • major academic interruptions for students from Morwell schools, in all learning areas, equating to a four- to five-month delay in educational attainment in NAPLAN domains, which has lasted several years
  • increased chest tightness and chronic cough in adults, and reduced lung stretchiness in both adults and young children three-and-a-half to four years after the fire.

Not limited to health effects, the study also investigated communication, community wellbeing and recovery. The researchers found that top-down public health communications from health authorities and others during the event led to confusion, mixed messaging and mistrust – adding to community distress. Recovery for the community means more than health, it includes broader wellbeing, job creation and sustainability, and careful consideration of the energy transition away from coal.

The findings of this study are highly relevant and have informed the responses to subsequent fire and smoke events, including the 2019 Black Summer bushfires across eastern Australia, which included decisions to evacuate smoke-affected communities and to supply air purifiers in evacuation shelters. The research has also been used to inform national guidelines responding to prolonged smoke events and advice for pregnant women, as well as Supreme Court trials finding the coal mine operators in breach of the Environment Protection Act and WorkSafe regulations.

With the growing impact of climate change and greater risk of similar disasters in the future, this research will play a pivotal role in shaping how we respond to future fire emergencies. This is thanks to the advocacy of the local community in starting this process and the continued commitment of researchers.

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