NSW public health units (PHUs) are located with local health districts. PHUs do much of the day to day work of protecting the community’s health – through a range of activities including the gathering of notifications of diseases from doctors, hospitals, laboratories, childcare facilities and schools, the investigation of cases and outbreaks, the implementation of control measures such as counselling, vaccination or chemoprophylaxis for contacts of cases at increased risk of diseases, as well as communication about health risks and promotion of immunisation. Here we present some case studies of what public health units got up to in 2013.

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Response to mercury contamination around Botany Industrial Park

South Eastern Sydney Public Health Unit

The Botany area has a history of noxious trades and industry going back to the early years of European settlement. From the early twentieth century, multinational companies began to establish large scale chemical operations in the area. Between 1944 and 2002, the chlor-alkali plant at Botany Industrial Park, originally commissioned by ICI and more recently operated by Orica, used metallic mercury in an electrolytic process to generate chlorine from sea water. Since the closure of the chlor-alkali plant and its replacement by a process which does not use mercury, environmental investigations have been undertaken to determine the legacy mercury contamination attributable to the former chlor-alkali plant. These have found substantial amounts of mercury present in the soil under Orica plant associated with mercury production, storage and use, and migration of this mercury into groundwater flowing under Botany Industrial Park.

Accidental release of mercury vapour in 2011 during attempts to remove metallic mercury from soil under the former chlor-alkali plant triggered significant community outrage regarding the possibility that mercury contamination had spread well beyond the plant’s boundaries into local residential areas. Some community members called for tighter control and better monitoring of clean up processes, and raised concerns about mercury exposure leading to health effects in local residents, and the value of mercury testing for those living near the site. The Public Health Unit attended a series of agency meetings and community consultations and agreed to prepare and circulate two documents, a brief guide to clinical testing for mercury and a comprehensive fact sheet ‘Mercury exposure and health’. The fact sheet was presented to members of the Orica Community Liaison Committee in May 2013 to much acclaim.

Sewage treatment plant overflow

Sydney and South Western Sydney Local Health Districts

In late 2013, heavy rainfall flooded the Glenfield Sewage Treatment Plant and untreated sewage flowed into Georges River. The Georges River is used mainly for recreational boating, fishing and swimming and oysters are grown in the lower reaches. This significant pollution incident prompted a multi-agency response to protect public health.

The sewage treatment plant, near the river at Glenfield, serves approximately 220,000 people, and has an average daily flow of 38 ML (megalitres). Minor discharges of effluent to the Georges River occur during wet weather periods under a NSW Environment Protection Authority licence. The pump failure and bypass to the river of approximately 150 ML of untreated sewage continued for two days. In accordance with Part 5.7 of the NSW Protection of the Environment Operations Act 1997, Sydney Water notified the incident to relevant Agencies, including the NSW Ministry of Health.

The South Western Sydney and Sydney Public Health Unit, Sydney Water, the NSW EPA and Health Protection NSW’s Water Unit assisted in the early management of this event. Following consultation between Agencies, Sydney Water issued a media release alerting people and advising them to avoid contact with river water.

The incident response was sustained over the ensuing two weeks and included:

  • repairs at the plant and activation of an emergency incident management response protocol
  • clean-up of impacted sections of the river
  • regular teleconferences to develop and review actions
  • maintaining closure of oyster leases (already closed due to rainfall)
  • Sydney Water issuing alerts through multiple channels and contacting a variety of stakeholders
  • sampling upstream and downstream of the plant for microbial, chemical and physical parameters
  • a review of water quality information to provide public health advice when the river water would be judged to be safe.

A spike in presentations for gastroenteritis at a local hospital was noted towards the latter end of the incident. Patients were contacted and it was established that there had been no recreational water contact with the Georges River.

Air Pollution Forum, Newcastle 23-24th September 2013

Hunter New England Local Health District

Three WHO Air Pollution and Health experts, Professors C. Arden Pope, Bert Brunekreef, and Ross Anderson joined Australian experts in Newcastle at the Air Pollution Forum in September to explore local and international air pollution research. The Forum was designed to address the concerns of the Hunter community and other communities concerned about industrial development and air pollution. Some of the key learning from the Forum were:

  • the relationship between particulate pollution and health is strongest at the lower end of the exposure curve, i.e. an increase in the annual average PM2.5 of 5 ug/m3, for example, from an average of 8 to 13 ug/m3 will have more population impact than an increase of 15 to 20 ug/m3
  • in Singleton and Muswellbrook, wood smoke in winter was the major source of PM2.5 particulates
  • excess deaths can be attributable to manmade elevations in PM2.5 particulates
  • there were few studies and little evidence of impacts on children's respiratory health from PM10 and coarser particle size adjacent to open cut coal mines.

The potential health impacts of air pollution are an ongoing concern, and the Forum was successful in sharing the lessons of recent research with public health practitioners, academics and members of the community.

Assessing the noise impacts of freight infrastructure on the local community

Northern Sydney Local Health District

In 2013, Transport for NSW sought approval to construct approximately six kilometres of new and upgraded rail track along the western side of the Main North Line rail corridor between Epping and Thornleigh station in Sydney’s north-west. The proposal was designed to expand freight rail and passenger train capacity on the line. It is expected that the project will substantially reduce the reliance on road transport of freight, decrease road congestion and lift economic productivity for the state.

While the project will likely deliver positive economic benefits, the potential for adverse environmental and health impacts for the local community needed to be considered. The proposal went through a rigorous planning assessment process including the preparation of an Environmental Impact Assessment. One of the major issues posed by the development is the predicted additional noise created by trains and in particular “wheel squeal”. Adverse impacts of excessive noise on human health are increasingly being recognised and should be comprehensively considered within an EIS for large rail projects.

The PHU reviewed and commented on the EIS prepared for the project. The project was approved in July with one of the conditions of consent being that a comprehensive Operational Noise and Vibration Review was to be conducted to ensure future noise impacts on the local community are mitigated. The PHU is continuing to have input into mitigation strategies with the aim of protecting the health of the local community through using cost-effective noise abatement measures.

The demolition of Port Kembla stack

Illawarra Shoalhaven Local Health District

The chimney stack at Port Kembla Copper was the tallest in the southern hemisphere at approximately 200 metres in height. It stood next to several residential areas which had grown up around the site during its decades of use, originally housing workers for both the copper smelter and the nearby steelworks. The failing structural integrity of the stack prompted plans to demolish it, which were approved in 2010, subject to careful planning that addressed health and other risks.

Planning took place throughout 2013 although the actual demolition was deferred to early 2014. The management plan addressed debris, vibration and noise, asbestos, metals and other contaminants and dust. Asbestos was completely removed from the stack prior to demolition and was audited by both the EPA and WorkCover to that effect. A 300-metre exclusion zone on the day of demolition would minimise the immediate risk of debris while the stack fell was contained completely within the industrial site and was bounded by several structures which would reduce the risk. The community and businesses would be evacuated from the exclusion zone by the police and only allowed to re-enter once clearance was given by the government agencies and police.

The heavy metals and contaminants were of minimal concern as the inner facing of the bricks had enamelled due to the years of heat within the stack, making it unlikely that they would be released in a fine particulate matter. In addition, the stack was subjected to several thorough pressure cleanings to remove any residual contaminated dust or material. This left the main concern from a health perspective as the dust created by the demolition. Dust was to be contained on-site through the use of a dust suppression system which involved multiple water spray applicators, but concerns persisted as to the effect that strong winds might have on carrying any dust plume created over adjacent residential areas.

The PHU worked to understand and minimise any risks by:

  • liaising with the environmental consultants on the development of the air monitoring plan and requested additional monitoring at sensitive sites such as the nearby preschool
  • developing information flyers for the public around any potential health risks and how to manage them on the day
  • accessing non-English speaking communities
  • prioritising community consultation in regards to health risks and how the company would respond to any unfavourable events
  • reviewing clean up protocols in case of the adjacent community being affected
  • preparing for any emergency response on the day of demolition.

In the end, the demolition occurred safely on 20 February 2014 just after 11 am, and did not constitute any measurable increased risk to the community. Preparation for the event was an unusual process, complicated by the height of the structure, its proximity to sensitive local communities and the history of activism in the region against industrial developments. It required a significant commitment and several government agencies working together with the company and consultants to bring about a positive outcome.

Current as at: Wednesday 24 March 2021
Contact page owner: Health Protection NSW