Renewed calls for industry to pay for the true health costs of coal

DOCTORS and environment groups have stepped up a campaign for a comprehensive study of Hunter air quality health impacts after local evidence has supported overseas research linking power station emissions and pre-term births.

NSW Health statistics show the Hunter/New England region had a 19 per cent higher rate of babies born before 37 weeks gestation than the state average in 2015, and one of the highest pre-term birth rates in the state.

The figures back a 2015 Chinese study of 127,000 babies showing a link between closing power stations and increased birth weights, and recent American research showing the closure of a power station led to a 28 per cent drop in pre-term births and a 15 per cent reduction in low-weight babies.

Nature Conservation Council chief executive Kate Smolski said the Hunter birth statistics and the overseas research showed the need for a public inquiry into the health impacts of the state’s coal-fired power stations, and for the NSW Government to set stronger pollution limits.

While many variables affect premature birth rates and baby weights, the American research was concerning because the closed American power station emitted substantially less of just one emission, sulphur dioxide, than Hunter power stations, Ms Smolski said.

“The Australian standard for sulphur dioxide is 11 times higher than the World Health Organisation’s and almost three time higher than US limits. Air quality in some parts of the Hunter exceed sulphur pollution limits that led to the closure of the power station in New Jersey. The people of NSW deserve better,” she said.

We should set about doing what’s necessary to protect mothers and babies from compromised air quality during pregnancy rather than do a study in Australia to confirm what studies overseas have already shown us.

University of Newcastle epidemiologist and GP Dr Ben Ewald

Newcastle GP and University of Newcastle epidemiology lecturer Dr Ben Ewald said the very large Chinese study, using statistics collected before and after more than 50 power stations in the Beijing area were closed for the 2008 Olympic Games, provided good evidence of the link between air quality and baby birth weight.

Birth weight is important because there is good research showing low birth weight increases the risk of chronic disease in later life, including heart and kidney conditions, he said.

While there were many variables affecting birth weight and the length of pregnancies, the size and rigour of the Chinese study could not be ignored.  

“We should set about doing what’s necessary to protect mothers and babies from compromised air quality during pregnancy rather than do a study in Australia to confirm what studies overseas have already shown us,” Dr Ewald said.

He is a prominent spokesperson for Doctors for the Environment, which has argued strongly for a more robust air quality regime in the state, and particularly in the Hunter region, because of government silence over regular air quality exceedances linked to open cut coal mines.

Doctors for the Environment has also pushed for the NSW Government to expand the existing load-based licensing regime – which charges industries for the pollution they produce – to include coal mining after an Environment Protection Authority in 2016 proposed the coal industry be included for the first time.

“The current mechanism for polluters to pay for their air pollution is too low to encourage them to clean up their act. If all the health costs from coal-fired power generation were added up and included in the price, polluters would pay 49 times the current price,” Dr Ewald said.

“Major polluters such as coal-fired power generators currently pay very little, and they are passing on the health costs to the community.”

This story Hunter baby data backs US, China air quality studies first appeared on Newcastle Herald.