Mine fire health study to have strong local presence

Leaders of the long-term study into the health effects of the Hazelwood mine fire are working to secure a Latrobe Valley location for their headquarters, with the preferred site at Monash University’s local School of Rural Health.

Monash University announced on Tuesday its successful tender to carry out the State Government-funded study with assistance from other tertiary institutions including Federation University.

Speaking to The Express yesterday, the locally-based head of the Monash University School of Rural Health, Professor Judi Walker, said the project team would have a strong local presence, and was working to finalise the location of its headquarters.

“We’re not a fly-by-night group coming in, we’re actually part of the community,” Professor Walker said.

“We’ve been in the Valley for a long time.

“It would be crazy if you had the study site in Melbourne.”

The study has been funded for an initial 10-year period, with a government commitment to continue it for at least a further decade.

Professor Walker said all Morwell residents who were in town at the time of the mine fire would be eligible to participate in the initial baseline study, which would record people’s basic information, whether they had pre-existing health conditions and their exposure at the time of the fire, through 

questionnaires and interviews. This will take at least a year.

It is not yet clear whether non-Morwell residents who work in the town will also be eligible to take part.

Researchers will then identify people to take part in a series of cohort studies, focusing on cardiovascular issues, respiratory impacts, psychological impacts, cancer, the elderly, child development and community wellbeing.

Professor Walker said the number of participants needed for each cohort study was being finalised, but suggested the cardiovascular study would require more than 300 residents and another 300 from a control group.

This control group would be selected from a ‘comparative community’ with a similar social, economic and environmental profile to Morwell, however that community or town is yet to be identified.

“We would prefer it to be a community not that far from Morwell,” Professor Walker said.

She said one of the first steps in the study would be to establish a community advisory committee in the next three to four months.

“There will also be a clinical reference group of local clinicians and a scientific steering committee.

“It’s no good thinking we know it all. It needs to be informed by the community.”

Professor Walker said the team would work hard to develop a “good relationship” with the residents of Morwell.

“We did see some hit and miss communication at the time of the fire and we want to make sure we communicate in a way that’s going to reach the right people.”

She said improved communication would also form part of the study, with FedUni analysing the communications approach during the mine fire.

The University of Tasmania will provide its expertise on child development, the University of Adelaide will share its knowledge in psychology and the CSIRO will look at air pollution.

Professor Walker said Monash would take the lead in the psychological aspects of the study, while its lead researcher Professor Michael Abramson from the School of Public Health was a clinical epidemiologist and a respiratory physician.

The study team is made up of 17 key researchers who will report back to the community and government on a regular basis.

Member for Morwell Russell Northe said the body of work would be one of the first of its kind.

“The Morwell community can have confidence that the institution leading this body of work is Monash University, known globally for its excellence in medical research,” Mr Northe said.

“I will be following the course of the study closely and I thank those who will have an active involvement in seeing it through to its end.”

Advance Morwell president John Guy welcomed the study and its extended length and said the group would look to get a position on the community advisory committee.

Morwell Neighbourhood House coordinator Tracie Lund, who secured more than 25,000 signatures in a petition calling for the long-term health study, said more needed to be done to address the community’s ongoing health concerns.

She said this included suggestions in the Hazelwood Mine Fire Inquiry Report that the Valley become a health conservation zone and appoint a health advocate.

“I also have concerns about the appointment and role of the Community Advisory Group in relation to the health study,” Ms Lund, who is also running as an independent candidate for the seat of Morwell, said.

“My experience of these groups is that they are not representative of the community and they have little power.

“We need to see community members that have been active on this issue being involved in the process.”