The wolf at the door

Climate change is affecting the health and wellbeing of many Australians, and is impacting on people’s health in a myriad of ways - death and illness from increasingly frequent extreme weather events, such as heatwaves, storms and floods, the disruption of food systems, and increases in zoonoses, vector-borne diseases, and mental health issues. Yet despite the climate wolf threatening to blow our houses down, the ideological naysayers are bent on realigning the message when it comes to climate change and human health – "king coal and gas still reign supreme".

Until such time as our governments get serious about the impact of climate change on human health, the 'climate wolf' will continue the threat to blow our houses down, leaving people out in the cold to face the deleterious consequences of extreme weather events and unnecessary and avoidable health problems.

10 April 2024

ALAN HAYES

 

NOT only is climate change adversely affecting the air we breathe both indoors and outdoors, warmer temperatures and shifting weather patterns can worsen air quality, which can lead to asthma attacks and other debilitating respiratory and cardiovascular health outcomes.

 

Planetary health equity – the equitable enjoyment of good health and wellbeing in a sustainable ecosystem – is also under threat from anthropogenic climate change and economic and social inequities. Driving these major challenges is the global consumptogenic system that encourages excessive production and consumption goods and services that are harming human and planetary health.

 

This climate threat is being exacerbated in the Central Coast’s own backyard with successive governments allowing the power-generating dinosaurs in the north of the ‘Coast’ to continue to operate.

 

Environmental pollutants, such as those found in the Lake Mannering coal ash dump and other air-borne pollutants from the aging power stations at Vales Point and Eraring, which are now beyond their use-by-date, will continue to contribute to respiratory diseases, heart disease and different types of cancer, as well as unsafe water in the southern end of Lake Macquarie and Lake Munmorah.

 

The Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) has issued warnings about eating crustaceans’ and some types of fish from these lakes, because of the toxic pollution being caused by the nearby Vales Point Power Station – overflow of water during heavy rain events from the Lake Mannering coal ash dam into Lake Macquarie and the PFAS pollution from the decommissioned Colongra Point Power Station that abuts the shores of Lake Munmorah.

 

Yet the Central Coast Waterways Report Card 2022-2023 claims that the ecological health of our lakes, estuaries, rivers, creeks and lagoons is pristine. It clearly shows that Central Coast Council and the State Government continue to ignore public concerns about waterway protection surrounding the highly pollutive Vales Point Power Station and PFAS (Per- and Polyfluorinated Substances) pollution in Lake Munmorah.

 

According to the Australian Cancer Council Atlas 2022 cancer rates in the Central Coast’s northern suburbs are extremely high. Elevated cancer clusters such as this are not known to exist anywhere else on the Coast – it seems that a correlation between power station emissions and human health must be considered.

 

Lung cancer represents 9.1% of all new cancer diagnoses in Australia and is now the fifth most often diagnosed cancer for both men and women. It is estimated that more than 14,700 people were diagnosed with lung cancer in 2023. The average age at diagnosis is 72 years old, and it is estimated that one in 20 people will be diagnosed by the time they are 85.

 

Diagnosed lung cancer cases in the Central Coast's northern suburbs far exceed those of the national average 0f 9.1%:

 

  • Budgewoi - 102%

 

  • Lake Munmorah/Mannering Park - 48%

 

  • Blue Haven/San Remo - 44%

 

  • Gorokan/Kanwal - 30%

 

It is also estimated that a person has a 1.7% risk of being diagnosed with head and neck cancer (including lip) by the age of 85 (2.6% for males and 0.89% for females), yet the following Central Coast suburbs exceed the Australian average:

 

  • Budgewoi - 66%

 

  • Toukley - 63%

 

  • Belmont  - 43%

 

  • Summerland Point - 34%

 

The Australian average for liver cancer is .007 per cent in males and .0027 for females, yet Budgewoi comes in at 58% and Wangi/Rathmines at 29%. And kidney cancer, with an Australian average of 0.39% for males and  0.16% for females, has Summerland Point 23% above the Australian average.

 

What about PFAS contamination in Lake Munmorah?

 

Gary Blaschke from the Central Coast's Future Sooner Group said newsletter after newsletter from the EPA continues to tell the locals on the coast that P.F.A.S. contamination in Lake Munmorah/Colongra Bay (part of the Tuggerah Lakes system) is not an issue for human health or the environment. Yet G.P.M., the operators responsible for the decommissioning of the Munmorah site, have applied for a development application to build a PFAS treatment plant to operate over the next ten years.

 

"A single paragraph by the EPA in their released statement is surly not enough to demonstrate all aspects of this development proposal and allow the community to understand exactly what is proposed," said Mr Blaschke.

 

"The past four EPA investigation documents indicate water sampling had been limited. The NSW Government considers that further testing is required to determine if PFAS has migrated offsite, and if there are any potential health impacts to the surrounding areas and local community.

 

"I find it appalling that little community consultation has taken place considering the history of PFAS in Williamtown and Wreck Bay. Yet our community is kept in the dark.

 

"Making it worse is the proposal for a complete new township to be constructed on the Doyalson RSL site and the impacts of both the former Lake Munmorah coal ash dam, the proposed PFAS treatment plant and Vales Point’s massive ash dam just across the road."

 

The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) has identified the following health effects as potential outcomes from exposure to PFAS: changes in cholesterol and liver enzyme levels. Small changes in infant birth weight. Changes in the immune system and response to certain vaccines.

 

A bitterly contested debate

 

Although Climate Change has produced a bitterly contested topic of public policy with profound implications for public health, there still seems to be a lack of effective advocacy by a range of parties, including those in the political arena.

 

The former Federal Science Minister, Barry Jones, recently described the quality of discussion about climate change in Australia as ‘deplorable’. It has been, he wrote, “soporific on one side and hysterical on the other, ugly, dumb and bullying, marked by a ‘Gotcha!’ approach in sections of the media, with relentless emphasis on fear, the short term, vested interests and a mindless populism.”

 

Health professionals and organisations are well placed to help generate a more informed debate and policy response. They hold relatively influential, powerful positions in society generally, and the health impacts of climate change offer an opportunity to engage the public in issues that may otherwise seem abstract and not personally relevant.

 

Yet despite the deleterious human health impact from coal-fired power stations, the Coalition is still pushing for them to stay open for longer to guarantee supply. Shadow Treasurer Angus Taylor said on Channel 7 News on Thursday 4 April, "Don't shut coal-fired and gas-fired power stations until we've got a replacement."

 

But how serious are our politicians to address climate change and the impact on human health and the environment. The Albanese Government ‘talks-the-talk’, yet it seems that they are failing to ‘walk-the-walk’. The debate over Australia’s climate legislation heated up after a push to change the national environment law suffered a huge blow, despite broad public support for climate change to be considered under legislation.

 

The Greens introduced their “Climate Trigger” bill, which quickly followed the Albanese government’s new climate change laws that mandated a 43% greenhouse gas emissions reduction by 2030, but it was deferred to the Environment and Communications Legislation Committee

 

So, why was the Greens “Climate Trigger” bill rejected?  Seventy-three per cent Australians believed environmental laws should be designed to protect them from the impacts of climate change, yet the Senate committee recommended rejecting a bill aimed to achieve just that.

 

Labor Senator Katy Gallagher said that the Labor Party will not be supporting the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Amendment (Climate Trigger) Bill.

 

“We've already changed the law, ending a decade of political infighting and instability caused by the former government,” Senator Gallagher said.

 

“A strong new climate safeguard law, which was supported by the Greens political party and Independents, means that coal and gas projects must comply with Australia's commitment to net zero.” Yet according to the Greens, Labor has failed to listen to business leaders like Dr Andrew ‘Twiggy’ Forrest who, at the National Press Club on 26 February 2024, called for a climate trigger in environment law. His call stands in stark contrast to Labor’s Bill to make offshore gas expansion exempt from existing environment law.

 

Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young said that Twiggy Forrest backed the growing call for a climate trigger in environment law. “He made the business case for ensuring that big projects should be assessed for their climate damage before being given any environmental approval,” she said.

 

“Business leaders like Dr Forrest can see that, for the sake of our environment and economy, we need to stop expanding fossil fuels - sadly that stands in stark contrast with too many politicians in our Parliament.

 

“Our environment laws are broken while they (the government) continue to allow the approval of new coal and gas mines, and increase fossil fuel pollution regardless of the impact on the environment, human health and climate.”

 

Dr Andrew ‘Twiggy’ Forrest said that every project up for government approval must have a climate trigger. "That means we must take the climate change and carbon pollution impact into account in any project approval," he said.

 

"It will be seen as asinine if we don't. It's long overdue that we do. It's a simple and reasonable government requirement that carbon emissions and global warming automatically be part of any environmental assessment.

 

“Energy companies who will quickly pivot - they don't have to now - will quickly pivot to green energy to meet their contracts. A similar policy is being considered in the United States, where President Biden has caused LNG export projects, pending assessment of their impacts on climate change and other matters of national security. It's about time.”

 

And what about the Greens ‘Climate Trigger’ bill? It now sits gathering dust and cobwebs because our federal government is not as serious about finding a solution to climate change as they continually claim.

 

What is needed is a hard cap on emissions, meaning real pollution must actually come down with no ‘wriggle-room’ for coal and gas corporations to buy their way out of the cap with offsets. This will then place a limit on coal and gas expansion in Australia, opening the door for investment into greenhouse emission-free electricity-producing power plants – ‘concentrated solar thermal power’. Pollution will then go down, not up.

 

Until our politicians think outside the square and realise that those pollution-belching behemoths of nineteenth-century technology are no longer the answer to guarantee base-load grid power, human health will continue to suffer.

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