The Upper Hunter has recorded an unprecedented number of alerts for poor air quality this year with health professionals voicing concern about the impacts of the region's deteriorating air quality.
The village of Camberwell has already eclipsed last year's tally of air quality alerts, with 52 exceedances of national air quality standards for coarse particle pollution (PM10). There were 44 alerts issued in 2018 and 126 exceedances recorded between 2011 and 2017.
Other air quality monitoring stations across the Upper Hunter have issued an increased number of alerts as dust from drought-stricken NSW combines with pollution from mining and power generation to create a toxic plume that hangs over the region.
Singleton GP Bob Vickers said there had been an increase in people presenting with hay fever and asthma in the past fortnight.
"You are always going to see an increase in these things at this time of year but ambient pollution levels have significantly increased the number of people who are susceptible to influenza in this community," Dr Vickers, who is also a member of national Doctors for the Environment group, said.
Another doctor, Scone GP Richard Abbott, said he believed Upper Hunter air quality had declined significantly in recent years.
"It's a big issue; obviously children are vulnerable to poor air quality but we also see people who work in mines who have symptoms of respiratory illnesses," Dr Abbott who has worked in the region for 35 years, said.
"There's always been a bit of dust up here from agriculture. There used to be smoke from wood heaters too but that's nowhere near what it used to be.
Dr Abbott is among a growing number of health professionals who have called for greater regulation of air pollution in the Upper Hunter.
"The health advice is to stay in doors and avoid breathing the outside air. I'd suggest that is difficult for most people to do. By the time you get the alert for poor air quality the air has begun to improve," he said.
Camberwell village is surrounded by eight mines.
Long-time resident Deidre Olofsson said governments were liable for failing to protect the community's health.
"A lot of people are concerned about the effect of continual exposure to high levels of air pollution, particularly when the World Health Organisation has highlighted the dangers," she said.
"The situation we are in clearly relates to the failures of the planning process and regulatory controls of air quality at a cumulative level."
Ms Olofsson and others have called for the government to conduct a health risk assessment of Upper Hunter communities exposed to poor air quality.
But NSW Minerals Council chief executive Stephen Galilee suggested Ms Olofsson and other residents who were concerned about the worsening air quality should consider leaving.
"Unlike other parts of the Hunter, Camberwell is very close to several large mining operations and as a result it does experience a higher level of dust from these sources. There are rules in place to ensure that when air pollution exceeds the government's standards, any affected residents have the right to ask the relevant mining company to buy their land, so if they want to move, they can do so without any financial penalty," he said.
The latest spate of alerts for poor air quality follows the publication of a study in the Journal of Rural Health in March 2019 that found air quality in the Upper Hunter was worse than in Sydney.
The results showed the Upper Hunter consistently had significantly higher levels of air pollutants after controlling for weather conditions.
A Hunter New England Health spokeswoman said NSW air quality was generally good by international standards.
"Hunter New England Health is always concerned when air quality is poor, such as when there are elevated levels of particulate matter," she said.
"Mining, other industrial activity and adverse environmental conditions, such as recent droughts and bush fires, all contribute to air pollution. Wood heaters in winter months are also a significant contributor to air pollution.
"There is extensive evidence that exposure to air pollution causes health effects. People with chronic respiratory and cardiovascular disease may be more sensitive to these effects."
An Environment Protection Authority spokesman said particulate pollution in the Hunter Valley was caused by factors which this year include dust storms associated with the drought, bush fires, hazard reduction burns and industry.
"The EPA regulates operating coal mines and power stations through an environment protection licence and employs a range of measures to ensure compliance.
"These include regular inspections, real time air quality monitoring and targeted campaigns such as "Bust the Dust" which monitors compliance and requires mines to implement actions to minimise dust, especially in dry and windy conditions," he said.
The EPA had the power to shut down mines that did not comply with their licence conditions.
The spokesman said Upper Hunter Air Quality Monitoring Network was a high-quality, regional air quality monitoring network that continuously measured airborne particles, gaseous pollutants and meteorological parameters.
A 2017 review of the network found that it provided a better understanding of the air quality and meteorology within the Upper Hunter community.
The review recommended investigating an extra PM 2.5 particle monitor at the Merriwa monitoring site which will be installed by the end of 2019.
Mr Galilee said Upper Hunter air quality was an important issue for the mining industry given thousands of miners and their families lived near the region's mine sites.
"Like other parts of NSW, the Hunter is experiencing dry and windy conditions that are presenting a challenge for our industry. Our mining operations are working hard to minimise their impact," he said.
"Mining operations do have an impact on air quality in the Hunter region, however there are other significant contributors to air quality, including transport, agriculture, and wood smoke from home heating."
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