Coal mining is not only an occupational health issue for miners but also a public health issue for residents, particularly in vulnerable communities.
Professor Michael Hendryx, from the University of Indiana and a Fulbright Distinguished Chair at the University of Newcastle, told the TSANZSRS meeting about the considerable impacts of mountain top mining across four US states in the Appalachian Mountains.
And local data suggested that Australians living in the rural Upper Hunter region were exposed to mean daily pollutant levels higher than in the centre of metropolitan Sydney.
Professor Hendryx said the blasting of overburden from mountain top mines was affecting both air and water quality in the communities who lived in nearby valleys.
A series of studies had documented respiratory, cardiovascular, gastrointestinal, musculoskeletal, dermatological and neurological symptoms in local residents.
Analyses of the dust in resident’s home and yards were very suggestive of overburden blasted from mines high above the homes.
Of particular concern were the ultrafine and respirable particle counts in air and levels of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons.
However he said the evidence was confounded by issues such as the low socioeconomic circumstances and high levels of smoking in the affected communities.
Professor Hendryx said from a public health point of view, the precautionary principle should have been applied while more robust evidence was gathered on the ecosystem and public health impacts of the mines.
However there had been no positive responses to calls from leading scientists for a moratorium on mountain top mining. Instead, there had been suspicious terminations of funding for relevant research projects.
Meanwhile in our own backyard, Australians should be concerned by the finding that coal mines in regional NSW might be adversely affecting air quality.
Research published this year in the Journal of Rural Health showed mean daily levels of PM2.5, NO, NO2 and NOx were higher in the Upper Hunter region than other areas including Sydney, Illawarra and other rural towns.
The Upper and Lower Hunter areas consistently had significantly higher levels of all pollutants after controlling for weather conditions.
The study extends the evidence base for the ubiquity of air pollution beyond traffic-related air pollution in cities.