Full health impact still unknown

A leading Victorian expert in respiratory health will not rule out the possibility of long-term heart and lung problems developing from Morwell’s smoke crisis.

Director of respiratory medicine at the Royal Melbourne Hospital, Associate Professor Lou Irving said the town’s unique circumstances of exposure made it difficult to predict the medical consequences.

He said European-based studies into atmospheric pollution, mainly as a result of traffic, found there was an adverse impact on the heart and lungs of people exposed for many months or years.

“What we don’t know is what a few weeks or a couple of months does long term,” Dr Irving said.

He told The Express he believed long-term health effects were “unlikely”, however as the Latrobe Valley’s exposure continued for the fourth week in a row it was “increasingly difficult to be absolutely certain there isn’t a risk”.

Dr Irving said multiple years of exposure to pollution, including the microscopic air particles known as PM 2.5 which penetrate deep into the lungs, resulted in an increased risk of chronic lung disease, chronic heart disease including heart attacks and heart failure, along with an increased risk of lung cancer, impacts on pregnancy and respiratory effects in children. He said he would like to see a local health registry of affected residents established for five years, however it would be difficult to study the 14,000 population of Morwell.

“The European studies involved hundreds of thousands of people to even see an effect,” Dr Irving said.

He encouraged the elderly, young children, pregnant women and those with pre-existing heart and lung conditions to take the advice of the Department of Health and relocate out of Morwell.

Dr Irving has provided his expert opinion to Victoria’s Chief Health Officer Dr Rosemary Lester, who a week into the smoke situation said she did not expect to see significant long-term health impacts.

Dr Irving said at that point in time he held the same view, however the subsequent continued exposure had caused him to shift his opinion slightly.

The Express last week requested the Department of Health provide a list of studies it drew on to support Dr Lester’s advice. They were not forthcoming. However, in a statement the department said it used published, evidence-based and peer reviewed studies, along with domestic and international experts.

The long-term data referred to by Dr Irving is part of the European Study of Cohorts for Air Pollution Effects. For more information visit www.escapeproject.eu/