The town where breathing is like 'smoking a cigarette a day'
ON SOME days breathing the air in Moranbah is "equivalent to smoking a cigarette a day", University of Queensland senior lecturer of Primary Care Clinical Unit David King says.
Data from the Department of Environment and Science shows the small mining community has been repeatedly exposed to high levels of microscopic dust, known as PM10, over the past 12 months.
The DES website says PM10 are airborne particles less than 10 micrometres in diameter and are capable of penetrating humans' lungs.
At elevated levels, the DES said, the particles "can be hazardous to human health" .
Yet, for the past 12 months, the air in Moranbah has been described by the DES as either "poor" or "very poor", as PM10 levels exceeded guidelines for the 24-hour average monthly maximum every month except for January, March and April.
In December 2018, the amount of PM10 micrograms per cubic metre was about 2.5 times the state guidelines of 50 micrograms per cubic metre. That month Moranbah residents were breathing in 124.1 PM10 micrograms per cubic metre.
Dr King said the dust posed an acute asthma risk and compromised the health of Moranbah's residents, especially children.
He said the dust could enter the residents' lungs and irritate them, potentially causing them to react and spasm.
While Australia has relatively clean air - especially when compared to India and China - Dr King said every year 3000 Australians died as a result of air pollution.
Dr King said there was a proven correlation between elevated dust levels and increased pressure on the emergency department and local doctors.
And in regions near open cut mining, like Moranbah and the Hunter Valley in NSW, Dr King said the health concerns were greater.
A 2013 NSW Health report in the Hunter Valley region found "some regions with exposure to open-cut coal mining and power generation were shown to have higher rates of emergency department attendance for asthma and respiratory disease, and higher rates of hospital admission for asthma, respiratory conditions and cardiovascular disease".
CFMEU Mining and Energy Queensland president Stephen Smyth said more was needed to protect workers and communities from the risk of respiratory dust disease.
"Open cut mines should be stepping up their dust control and dust suppression measures in the current dry conditions. It is not fair for mine operators to let communities bear the brunt of poor dust management practices," he said.
Mr Smyth said on some days the Bowen Basin open cut mines were so dusty that workers were unable to see what they were doing, which put them in danger.
Dr King said the DES data demonstrated that open-cut mines in the region should take precautions to reduce the dust exposure - not only for their workers - but nearby towns.
"Mines need to be more careful during blasting with the wind direction so it's not going over the town," he said.
"If the dust is going over the town - over the school - it may well be impacting their health.
"The coal dust is not the only concern for the Moranbah community. All kinds of dust can cause damage," he said.
But for the general public, Dr King said, he was still concerned about the long-term exposure to elevated dust levels.
A DES spokesperson said the Queensland Government "takes air quality very seriously".
They said the equipment used to test air quality was not able to determine how much of the dust from mining activities might contribute to the level of PM10 in Moranbah.
The spokesperson said by comparing the data with meteorological and fire reports, they were able to conclude the reason for elevated dust levels was due to lower than average rainfall and resulting dry conditions.
"These conditions have resulted in more frequent dust storms and bushfire smoke, as well as increased hazard-reduction burning to reduce bushfire risk in the region," the DES spokesperson said.
The spokesperson said an upgrade to the Moranbah station was planned within the next few months, to allow it to detect smaller airborne particles, PM2.5.
But the spokesperson said the smaller particles "primarily come from combustion processes, and not geological material such as from a mining site".
The DES spokesperson said PM10 was caused by wind-blown dust, industrial processes like mining, motor vehicle emissions and fires.
Dr King advocated that DES and Queensland Health should collaborate to establish if there has been any affect of the elevated PM10 levels on Moranbah residents' health.
Dr King accused Queensland Health of being "reactive" in regards to dust related public health risks.
"Queensland Health doesn't see its role in the public health sphere unless they're really pushed," he said.
"Often Queensland (Health) is a bit reactive and a bit late."
A Queensland Health spokesperson would not answer questions about whether the department would coordinate with the Department of Environment and Science to investigate any potential impacts on the health of the residents in Moranbah.
"Dusty conditions from natural events like bushfires or dust storms can be trying for everyone, but they are especially difficult for people with pre-existing conditions," they said.
They recommended people with respiratory issues who live near a bushfire or dust storm, to stay indoors with windows and doors closed, follow any medical plan provided by their doctor such as an asthma management plan, and avoid vigorous exercise.
"If anyone is experiencing any adverse reactions to the dust or smoke, such as shortness of breath, prolonged coughing or wheezing, seek medical advice," they said.