Is your health at risk from coal dust?

Massive coal port expansion could be putting your health at risk

There is no such thing as a safe health threshold for coal dust.

This is confirmed by the World Health Organisation, which stated:

“There may be no safe threshold for fine particulate matter and the effects are linearly related to concentration.”

(World Health Organisation & Australian National Pollution Inventory)

Yet just a few kilometres downwind of the central Queensland city of Mackay, giant coal terminals, which already feature open coal stockpiles, are being proposed for massive expansion.

This puts the health of the people of Mackay and surrounding townships and beach communities – particularly those living closer to the port and rail line, at risk.

What makes coal dust so dangerous?

Coal dust particulates (tiny pieces of coal) are of particular concern because they contain heavy metals which are toxic at low concentrations.

They include lead, mercury, nickel, tin, cadmium, mercury, antimony, and arsenic, as well as radio isotopes of thorium and strontium.

Coal dust, especially fine coal dust, has been identified by health professionals and doctors around the world as causing a range of diseases and health problems.

Examples include an increased incidence of heart and respiratory diseases like asthma and lung cancer.

Fine invisible coal dust particles less than 2.5 microns long lodge in the lungs and are not naturally expelled, so long-term exposure increases the risk of health problems.

More exposure increases risk

The health risks increase with the level and frequency of exposure.

As fine coal dust accumulates in the lungs over time duration of exposure is also a risk factor. 

In fact, epidemiological research suggests that there is no threshold at which it is safe to breathe coal dust. 

This conclusion is supported both by the World Health Organisation and several research studies.

The factors that may influence the health effects related to exposure to particles include:

  • the chemical composition and physical properties of the particles
  • the mass concentration of the airborne particles
  • the size of the particles (smaller particles may be associated with more adverse effects because they can be inhaled more deeply into the lungs)
  • the duration of exposure (short and long term, possibly in years).

Coal dust could be three times worse around Mackay

The Hay Point and Dalrymple Bay coal ports, around 40 km south of Mackay, are together one of the largest coal ports in the world and already put the health of the people of Mackay region at risk.

What’s even worse is that fine coal dust and other particulate levels could increase up to three times current export levels if a proposal for two coal terminals to export up to 180 Mtpa of coal annually from Dudgeon Point within the Hay Point coal port land complex proceeds. 

Not enough is being done to protect people’s health

To date there has been no research on the expected health impacts in the Mackay region of coal dust from the rail and port operations at Hay Point.

Data to conduct such research, such as the geographic distribution of the very fine coal dust emissions (smaller than PM 2.5) and related health impacts from current coal exports, is not being collected.

Your health is not being protected

In fact, the standards that the Queensland Government suggests for coal dust are much worse than the standards recommended by the World Health Organisation, and they are not monitored or enforced by government.

What action needs to be taken?

1. Very fine coal dust needs to be properly monitored

Currently, Total Suspended Particulates, (TSP) which includes coal dust from the Hay Point coal terminal is monitored for the larger PM10 particulates, but it is not monitored for the extremely fine particulates that have the potential to do the most damage.

Although a new fine dust monitor that can measure the smaller PM 2.5 particulates is planned for McEwan’s Beach near Dudgeon Point, one monitoring station isn’t enough. There needs to be a network of stations to check the air quality in different areas. 

2. Monitoring must occur in Mackay and Northern Beaches 

The lightness of fine dust particles allows them to remain suspended for long periods, and to blow hundreds to thousands of kilometres depending on wind and other meteorological conditions.

Prevailing winds blow from the southeast and already blow fine coal dust from the Hay Point port land coal terminals over Mackay.

Coal dust from the existing Hay Point and Dalrymple Bay port terminals within the Hay Point port lands has been reported in east Mackay, Mackay Harbour apartments and as far as Blacks Beach, a northern suburb of Mackay 26 km directly northwest of the Hay Point port lands.

As these particulates are visible they are likely to be PM10 so it seems both PM10 and PM2.5 and smaller particulates are reaching Mackay.

These need to be properly monitored and correlated with health assessments for the area over time. 

3. Monitoring of coal dust needs to be continuous and publicly available

The community has a right to know about the dangers to them of coal dust in the air.

At the moment, the coal dust monitoring data that is available, is only available as a monthly average.

While you can get some idea for the month of the percentage and amount of each month’s fine dark particulates (probably the more hazardous coal and diesel particulates) from the monitoring sites, you still do not know daily, hourly, or minute levels of these emissions.

You do not get data that shows more dangerously high levels in “spikes” of emissions due to variability in wind and moisture conditions, and the degree of disturbance of the coal, because they are lost in the presentation of reported data as “averaged” daily and monthly values. 

More information

Coal dust and health in the Mackay Region. February 2013, Communities Protecting our Region

Read the Mackay Conservation Group's submission on the health impacts of coal dust to the Senate Community Affairs Committee

 


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  • commented 2016-04-03 22:51:26 +1000
    Coal particles are SMALLER THAN A VIRUS FACT Are we to be subjected to this WAKE UP AUSTRALIA OR BE KILLED FOR PROFIT :-(
  • commented 2015-10-16 04:18:38 +1000
    WHY IS THERE NO REPORTS ON THE MILITARY USING COAL TO HEAT BARRACK .FROM THE 1900 TO 1970.WHAT HEALTH HAZARDS FOR G I WHO STOKE THE FURNACES ON 12 HOUR SHIFTS.NEED ALL I CAN GET ON DANGERS.