The impact of coal mine fire smoke on lung health

Photo credit: Keith Pakenham – CFA

Recent findings from the Hazelwood Health Study outline that three and a half years after the mine fire, higher levels of smoke exposure were associated with poorer lung function in adults.

Led by Professor Michael Abramson from our School, the team worked with CSIRO to estimate the levels of fine particles in the smoke smaller than 2.5 thousandths of a millimetre in diameter (PM2.5). Particles this fine can travel deep into people’s lungs, with the study finding that as PM2.5 exposure increased, lung stretchiness decreased.

“It is normal for the lungs to become less stretchy as we age. However, our findings indicated that each 10 μg/m3 (10 thousandths of a gram per litre) increment in smoke exposure was associated with reduced stretchiness that you would normally observe after approximately four years of aging,” said Professor Abramson.

The study incorporated 346 adults from Morwell who were grouped into three levels of mine fire PM2.5 exposure (low: daily average of 6 micrograms per cubic metre of air (μg/m3); medium: average of 12 μg/m3; and high: average of 28 μg/m3) and 173 adults from Sale who had little or no exposure. Participants underwent a test of lung health using the forced oscillation technique (FOT) that involves normal breathing on a machine while sound waves are used to measure how easily air can move through the lungs, as well as the stretchiness of the lungs. The test was conducted both before and after using an asthma puffer containing salbutamol (Ventolin™).

Participants also answered questions about respiratory symptoms such as cough and wheeze and medication use, and the analysis took into consideration other factors that could influence lung health, such as age, height, weight, cigarette smoking and participants’ jobs that may have involved exposure to dust, smoke or fumes.

The findings were published in Respirology.

“To our knowledge, no study has assessed the long-term impact of PM2.5 from exposure to coal mine fires, wildfires or biomass fuel smoke in adults using FOT. These results should inform public health policies and planning for future events,” he said.

Outdoor air particulate matter (PM) exposure, from sources including vehicle exhaust, industry, biomass fuels and wild-fires, collectively account for an estimated 7.5 per cent of all deaths globally in 2016.

About the Hazelwood Health Study

The fire in the Morwell open cut brown coal mine adjacent to the Hazelwood Power Station blanketed the town of Morwell and the surrounding area in smoke and ash for six weeks in February and March 2014. The smoke event was recognised as one of the most significant air quality incidents in Victoria’s history. It caused considerable community concern within Morwell and the broader community. In response to these concerns, and following extensive community consultation, the Hazelwood Health Study (HHS) was established to examine the impacts of the mine fire. The HHS involves multiple research streams targeting different health outcomes and different vulnerable groups. The Respiratory Stream is the part of the HHS that examines whether exposure to smoke from the mine fire is associated with respiratory symptoms, asthma control and decline in lung function.

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