A fire burns out of control in the open cut coal mine near Morwell, Australia. The town of Morwell and its 14,000 inhabitants has been blanketed in smoke and authorities fear it could take months to completely extinguish the blaze. The town is about 150 km east of Melbourne. Photo: Keith Pakenham / CFA Communities and Communication

By Helen Davidson   
3 March 2014

(theguardian.com) – Doctors have warned of serious health risks to people living around the Morwell coalmine fire, due to a carcinogenic air pollutant reaching levels up to 20 times the average level.

The Doctors for the Environment Australia (DEA) group, which spoke to a rally of Morwell residents on Sunday, is also renewing calls for federally regulated monitoring and reporting requirements to warn people of increasing risks as they occur.

Thousands of Victorians are being affected by smoke from the coal which has been burning for three weeks and looks to continue for many months to come. The fire was discovered to have been deliberately lit during one of Victoria’s most serious fire situations since Black Saturday.

The Victorian fire services commissioner, Craig Lapsley, on Friday told residents it would be at least 10 days before the fires stopped producing significant ash and smoke over the region, and the state’s chief health officer Dr Rosemary Lester advised at-risk groups in South Morwell to temporarily relocate.

The government has offered free travel and relocation payments for some people as residents leave the area. There have been some complaints that the relocation payments are not available to all residents.

On Sunday, the DEA, an environmental campaign group of doctors and medical students, warned the burning coal was creating an abnormally high level of particle PM2.5, which has been classified as a class one carcinogen alongside tobacco smoke and asbestos.

PM2.5 is formed in a number of ways, particularly in fossil fuel combustion, Dr Merryn Redenbach, research and liaison officer for DEA said.

“In general in Australia we have a daily average exposure advisory limit of 25 micrograms per metre cubed per day,” said Redenbach.

“But there have been peaks of around or over 500 since the fires began at Hazelwood.”

In the immediate short term, exposure to the high levels of PM2.5 was a danger to vulnerable groups such as young children, the elderly, and people with pre-existing illnesses including heart and lung diseases, Redenbach said.

“For example on days when particulate matter is higher, we see more hospital presentations with heart failure, heart arrhythmias,” said Redenbach.

“Long-term exposure of PM2.5 is associated with increased mortality rates, but also with rates of lung cancer.” [more]

Morwell coalmine fire: doctors warn residents face serious health risks

A water-bombing helicopter flies over the burning coal mine near Morwell, Australia, on 23 February 2014. Photo: Jason South / The Age

19 February 2014 (ABC) – The air quality in communities in eastern Victoria continues to deteriorate as officials battle a big fire in the Hazelwood open cut coal mine.

The air quality at Morwell and Traralgon has hit a record low for the second time in a week.

The Environment Protection Agency (EPA) says any air quality index reading above 150 is very poor.

On Sunday the air quality reading at Traralgon deteriorated to 460 and this morning it hit a high of 702 at Morwell.

Deputy Premier Peter Ryan has instructed the Fire Services Commissioner Craig Lapsley to open a special centre in Morwell to answer health-related and business questions for residents.

Thick smoke from the blaze continues to engulf the town and has spread as far as Sale, 65 kilometres away.

The air quality is so bad that some schools are being closed down and children relocated to Moe.

The Education Department plans to close a primary school in the Latrobe Valley to protect its students from the smoke and ash coming from the Hazelwood and Yallourn fires.

The Commercial Road Primary School in Morwell will be closed and its students relocated to schools in Moe.

The school's playground, like most of Morwell, is affected by the smoke haze and covered in a fine ash. [more]

Air quality continues to deteriorate at Morwell, Traralgon, as mine fire continues to burn

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