Something in the air: time for independent testing in coal areas

Smoking is sickening, but coal and coal-fired power stations? Don’t you worry about that. AAP/Greenpeace

Tens of thousands of Australians live and work close to coal-fired power plants. The cocktail of gaseous and particulate pollutants arising from coal power generation is injurious to human health. All are associated with an increased risk of heart attack and stroke in the days after exposure and subsequently with the development of chronic cardiopulmonary diseases.

A recent article in the Medical Journal of Australia details the mechanisms of these health impacts, reviews their inadequate documentation in Australia and the lack of political will to address them. Here we summarise some of these findings and document inadequate action in communities from three states.

What is in the air?

We know from the Australian National Pollutant Inventory that there is considerable pollution from coal-related sources, for example in New South Wales coal mines and coal fired power stations are among the state’s biggest polluters.

However, there are insufficient data from areas where people live to know the extent of the impact of this pollution on people on a daily basis. This is an obvious deficiency. In the Hunter Valley, some of the affected areas have higher rates of hospital admissions and emergency department presentations for respiratory diseases than the state average, but only for some age groups and some conditions. As noted in a report from NSW Health, just relying on hospital data is insufficient to really ascertain the health impacts of coal mining and burning in the region.

The two main gaseous pollutants of concern are sulphur and nitrogen dioxides. Most coal-fired power stations have been modified to reduce their level but some – such as Bayswater in NSW and Hazelwood in Victoria – are significant emitters of both gases. The level of sulphur dioxide (a strong respiratory irritant) in coal-fired power station emissions also depends on the amount of sulphur in the coal source, which varies considerably.

Of great concern among harmful pollutants are the particulates that are too small to see. Particles from the smoke stacks are inhaled into the lungs during breathing. The smaller the particles the deeper they penetrate. Some lodge in the lining of the lungs and cause inflammation.

The smaller particles pass through the lining to enter the blood stream and cause disease, predominantly inflammation of blood vessels leading to obstruction in other parts of the body such as, for example, the brain, causing stroke. The particles are made up of carbon and a range of toxic substances, including sulphur and nitrogen oxides. Some of these may be carcinogens.

There is no safe level for particulate pollution. The burden of disease is proportional to the level of exposure. These findings are the same in all communities throughout the world.

Rev it up, it’s great for the economy. AAP/Dave Hunt

Life near power plants is like compulsory smoking

There is a compelling analogy to smoking cigarettes. The advice is “Don’t smoke”. Those living and working in the vicinity of power plants are in effect compulsory smokers. Indeed society suffers from addiction to both coal and cigarettes. Doctors for the Environment Australia has distributed a poster on the scourge of coal to nearly all general practitioners in Australia with the message “It’s Time to Quit now”.

In the US, coal combustion contributes to asthma, cancer, heart disease and stroke and it interferes with lung development and compromises intellectual capacity; 50,000 deaths each year are attributed to pollution from power plants.

As discussed in the MJA article, in Australia there is only limited research into the impacts of air pollution from coal, compared to in Europe and the USA. However, current evidence suggests that the health impacts of air pollution are similar to those reported from other developed countries.

There isn’t just risk in burning coal; digging it up threatens health too. In the regions around coal mines the particles are larger in size and are often referred to as “dust”, because they can be seen. But smaller particulates are also released, and when breathed these cause the increases in diseases of the heart and lungs seen around mines all over the world.

From Queensland to South Australia, a tale of inaction

The impact of coal mining and burning in urban areas is poorly monitored. For example, in spite of large numbers of coal mines in the region of Muswellbrook and Singleton in NSW, very little monitoring is done in the areas where people live. Even when air quality measures are exceeded, as in a recent example in Acland in Queensland, the Environmental Protection Agency failed to act without a complaint. Clearly Australia has a long way to go to ensure healthy air for its citizens.

Governments have remained impotent in the face of the size and complexity of the issue. These brief case studies illustrate some of the causes of failure.

The power stations of Port Augusta in SA use local dirty coal and produce 40% of the state’s electricity. The smoke stacks are downwind only a few kilometres from the town. Indentures to pollute were part of the deal to produce power in the days when the hazards were not as fully recognised as today. While health data are sparse, an increase in childhood asthma and adult cancer of the lung has been documented.

Air pollution in the Upper Hunter is a complex issue resulting from the inaction of successive state authorities in addressing residents’ health concerns. Health studies have been belated and confirm the expected. As with Port Augusta, where a significant part of the economy is fuelled by air polluting industry, assessing the health risks of air pollution can be considered a low priority for government, even when local residents demand it. One has to conclude that the problem is too expensive to be addressed.

The push for new mines for export profit, particularly in Queensland, has exposed poor regulatory practice. Acland in Queensland has had pollution from open cut mines above regulatory levels for years and yet is now designated for expansion. Many other mines are proceeding through a regulatory system which many regard as inadequate in public health standards.

In Victoria the expansion of an Anglesea mine is likely to be permitted two kilometres from a school when a wind farm would not be permissible, even though there are no known health impacts from wind farms. Doctors for the Environment Australia is legally opposing another Victorian coal power station development on health grounds.

What is all this doing to our bodies? AAP/Dave Hunt

How can we work towards health?

In the US it has been estimated that if the cost of disease resulting from coal was paid for by the coal and power industries it would almost double the cost of electricity. Doctors and health services promote the concept that “prevention is better than cure”, so why does society not act to prevent this scourge?

National air quality standards are in place, but in fact air quality is poorly monitored in Australia, as most monitoring is done by industries themselves, without external controls. Industries are required to report their emissions, but most provide calculated data rather than the results of actual measurements. This calculated data is based on modelling for the type of industry and therefore usually is based on the best case scenario. This means that when there is a malfunction and more pollution is released, this is not always reported.

There are some fundamental reasons governments fail to act on these health risks. Too much responsibility resides with the states, which have non-transparent and sometimes inadequate health assessment tied to outmoded Environmental Impact Assessments.

While in some states health impact assessments are performed for new major developments, there is no obligation to act on the outcomes of these assessments. There are also limited requirements to include cumulative impacts of any developments on the health of the local population, even though this is critically important.

So health remains at the mercy of state governments with conflict of interest; they do not want to risk the spoils from Australia being the world’s fourth-largest producer of coal and the world’s biggest exporter. Federal input is anachronistically placed in the EPBC Act, which was designed to protect the natural environment not human health. Human health needs to be a much greater consideration for all new developments. Governments remain culpable.

At the very least, governments should require independent monitoring that is paid for by the emitter that monitors actual emissions at the stack and also at nearby locations where people live and work. The data must be publicly available for the affected communities and other interested parties to access in a timely way.

State governments must oversee the monitoring and act on any breaches. If emissions are unacceptably high, then industry needs to modify their activities to reduce emissions to an acceptable level. A greater investment in renewable energy sources would also reduce our dependence on fossil fuels and therefore pollution levels.

There are solutions, now we just need the political will to get there.

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