Coal mine fire-related air pollution increased health service use, study finds

Coal mine fire-related air pollutants from the 2014 Hazelwood mine fire have been linked to a rise in health service use and increased rates of dispensing prescription medications in the Latrobe Valley.

These findings were made after Hazelwood Health Study researchers related daily coal mine-fire related air pollution simulations conducted by the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation to data provided by the Commonwealth Department of Human Services on health service use and prescription medication dispensed by pharmacists in the Latrobe Valley.

“It was estimated from 9 February 2014 to 10 March 2014 that there were an additional 5137 General Practitioner consultations, 405 cardiovascular visits, 174 respiratory visits and 286 mental health consultations attributed to coal mine-fire related PM2.5 (fine particles with a diameter of 2.5 thousandths of a millimetre or less) air pollution,” HHS researcher Associate Professor Yuming Guo said.

“We also estimated that an additional 2501 cardiovascular medications, 574 respiratory medications and 1429 mental health-related medications were dispensed as a result of the PM2.5 air pollution during the mine fire period.

“These findings showed clear evidence that PM2.5 air pollution was significantly associated with an estimated increase in health service use and the dispensing of respiratory, cardiovascular and mental health medications, however, the data were not enough to link any individual case to the fire.”

Associate Professor Guo said in this instance, the examination of air pollution was limited to fine particulate matter (PM2.5) and did not include other possible pollutants such as carbon monoxide.

However, these findings will help fill in knowledge gaps that exist regarding the impact of open cut brown coal mine fire smoke exposure on health service and prescription medication usage.

“They will also be helpful in developing and introducing strategies to plan cardiovascular, respiratory and mental health services for any possible future coal mine fire air pollution in the Latrobe Valley or similar communities,” Associate Professor Guo said.

Researchers from the Monash University-led Hazelwood Health Study are also running clinical assessments in Morwell and Sale and conducting interviews that will further assess cardiovascular, respiratory and mental health in smoke-affected communities.

The Medicare Benefits Schedule and Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme data: Time series analyses report is available here.

This research was funded by the Victorian Department of Health and Human Services.