Doctors prescribe solar treatment for coal addiction

Port Augusta's Playford B coal-fired power station.

A May 3 briefing to South Australia’s parliament by Doctors for the Environment Australia (DEA) has drawn attention to important research on the alarming health effects of coal burning on the Port Augusta community, reaffirming the case for a speedy transition to solar thermal power for the region.

The briefing coincided with the release of DEA research into the impacts of particulate pollution on Port Augusta residents confirming what locals have long suspected: the town's two nearby coal power stations (only three kilometres away) have significantly contributed to Port Augusta's higher than expected rates of lung cancer, childhood asthma and other respiratory ailments.

Air quality data from 2005-2011 obtained from Alinta, owner of the power stations, and the SA Environment Protection Authority (EPA), revealed that in five out of seven years, the number of days where levels of particulate pollution were higher than national ambient air quality standards dramatically exceeded the legislated goal of less than six days a year.

In 2007, the number of days on which levels of particulate pollution exceeded ambient air quality standards was calculated at 66 — more than 11 times the number of days considered acceptable.

Given such data, it is unsurprising health statistics reveal Port Augusta’s lung cancer rate was 1.45 times higher than expected for 1998-2007 and two times higher for 2007-2009.

The SA government has long attributed Port Augusta’s higher incidence of lung cancer to higher rates of smoking. But the DEA’s Dr David Shearman told the ABC that the smoking rate is "really insufficient to account for a doubling of ... lung cancer". Smoking in Port Augusta is just 7% more common than elsewhere in the state.

Studies conducted in 1993 revealed Port Augusta’s preschool children to have the highest prevalence of asthma in the state, more than 30% than the state average. The city’s preschoolers also have the highest prevalence of dry cough and hay fever, and high rates of bronchitis and strong head colds.

Further research is needed to explore the reasons behind these concerning trends, but it is likely that particulate pollution from the power stations is a big contributing factor.

This would be consistent with research elsewhere on the health effects of particulate pollution (while not specifically focusing on coal burning) that identifies increased rates of asthma, chronic bronchitis and coughing as impacts.

The health impacts of coal burning and mining extend beyond respiratory ailments. They include arrhythmias, non-fatal heart attacks and neurological diseases.

Particularly harmful are the smallest particles, known as PM2.5 (as they have a diameter less than 2.5 millionths of a metre), which lodge into the lining of the lungs when inhaled, and then into blood vessels where they can cause obstruction. They can lead to strokes when such obstruction occurs near the brain.

In the US, studies of West Virginian coalmining communities also suggest higher risk and mortality for cardiopulmonary disease, hypertension and chronic kidney disease.

Critically, there is no safe level of exposure to particulate pollution; any level of exposure increases the likelihood of respiratory and other health problems. The generation of electricity from gas also produces particulate pollution and so also detrimentally affects human health.

This is not to mention the much-discussed threats to health posed by unconventional gas exploration, particularly coal seam gas, which some US scientists have labelled “an uncontrolled health experiment on an enormous scale”.

The SA government’s attitude towards the longstanding health concerns of Port Augusta residents — especially its dismissal of concerning health data with implausible claims about smoking habits — is consistent with nationwide patterns of indifference by governments towards the health impacts of fossil fuel use.

These patterns are reflected in the willingness of governments to allow coalmines and power stations remarkably close to residential areas — Victoria’s Anglesea mine is only two kilometres from a school — and the poor monitoring and regulation of air quality near such infrastructure.

They reflect the continuing triumph of the interests of fossil fuel corporations over sound public health policy.

The SA government and EPA made particulate pollution data publicly available only after a six-month struggle by DEA.

In the Upper Hunter Valley, one of Australia’s most coal-dominated regions, studies on the health impacts of particulate pollution have been infrequent and residents’ complaints ignored by successive NSW governments. Monitoring of air quality near mines and power stations only began in December 2010 after much community outrage and a belated NSW Health report.

Such monitoring is far from routine: monitoring of particulate pollution at Queensland’s massive Acland mine expansion, for example, is still largely unavailable and is very limited throughout Australia.

Monitoring, when it exists, is generally undertaken by the coal companies themselves, creating an obvious conflict of interest. While required to report data to governments and EPAs, they often provide calculated data derived from best-case scenario modelling for the industry, rather than the results of actual measurements.

Coal burning and mining constitute major threats to human health: not only because of their current impacts but because of the profound climate change-related effects they will cause.

In Canada, an Ontario-based government study of deaths resulting from fossil fuels activity produced results, which if translated to Australia, would suggest 4600 deaths caused by coal burning a year. It is unacceptable that the particulate pollution caused by mines and power stations is not monitored on an extensive, independent and transparent basis.

In any case, generating our electricity from coal is no longer a necessary evil — it's just evil. Through the combination of diverse renewable energy sources, particularly solar thermal power, which can provide large-scale, “baseload” power, Australia can produce electricity through resources that do not require the health of communities to be sacrificed.

Nowhere in Australia is the case for a speedy transition from coal to renewables more compelling, more urgent, than for the long-suffering town of Port Augusta.

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