EMISSIONS from Hunter power stations will be central to a study proposed by Melbourne researchers who are investigating the relationship between mercury and autism.
The study would build on recent US research highlighting a potential link between industrial mercury emissions and high autism rates. The National Pollution Inventory shows coal-fired power stations produce about 30 per cent of mercury emissions. Meanwhile, autism levels have soared in recent decades.
In 1983 the number of Australian children diagnosed with autism was one in 20,000. Today the number of children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders, including autism, is one in 160.
Researcher David Austin from Swinburne University of Technology said the Hunter's air quality was of interest to researchers.
"The Hunter's air quality is a major population health issue," he said.
"More research needs to be done into mercury emissions to properly understand its potential health impacts."
Associate Professor Austin said researchers were applying for government funds for the project.
"Unless there is enough political will it's difficult to get these sorts of projects up," he said.
The study has the backing of the NSW Greens.
"The Keneally government is pushing for yet more coal-fired power stations, including a 2000 megawatt plant at Bayswater," Greens MP John Kaye said.
"The Keneally government's Hunter health study overlooked autism as a possible consequence of the massive amounts of coal being burnt in the region."
"At the very least, a moratorium on new coal-fired power stations should be imposed until the evidence is better understood."