The two major parties have failed to address one of the most critical health issues facing Victorians, writes medical student Tim Martin.

“Running for election without a plan to shut down coal-fired power stations when there are viable clean alternatives isn’t just negligent, it’s madness,” he warns.

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Tim Martin writes:

By now you must have realised that ambulance response times are the big ticket health issue of this election.

As a medical student, I certainly find it concerning that 1 in 4 Code One calls are not addressed within the target response time of 15 minutes and both major parties have pledged to “fix” the problem.

However, whilst ambulance response times are extremely important, they are only one part of the health system and neither Labor nor the Coalition has adequately addressed other essential factors.

In 2013, there were 243 deaths on Victoria roads. This year, the year to date figure is sitting at 222.

The road toll is a devastating example of largely avoidable deaths that have a disproportionate impact on young drivers and families.

However, compare that to the 374 excess deaths in a single week from heatwaves prior to the Black Saturday bushfires. This figure is not referring to the 173 deaths from the fires themselves, but those who died due to the sweltering 43°C heat over 3 consecutive days.

Mind you, mortality spikes like these happen multiple times, every summer, not only during “freak” weeks. And the number and intensity of heatwaves and fires themselves will only get worse as our climate is irreversibly altered.

Typically it is the elderly, particularly those without much family support living by themselves, the very young or those with chronic diseases such as heart disease or asthma who are at risk during these killer heat waves. Spikes in deaths, hospital presentations and ambulance calls subsequently put pressure on the health frontline: paramedics and emergency department doctors and nurses.

Our politicians, conveniently, seem to have trouble recognising the impact heatwaves have on health, and the link between heatwaves, fire danger and climate change.

Indeed, neither the Victorian Coalition nor Labor parties appear to have anything resembling a comprehensive or even quasi-thought out plan targeting the source of these deaths. The Greens, on the other hand, at least recognise the adverse events caused by coal and have policies on bushfires, climate and energy that address some of these issues.

If that’s not convincing enough, let’s look at the 2014 Hazelwood mine fire. This fire burnt for weeks, releasing toxic smoke over Morwell’s 14,000 residents and costing the Victorian taxpayer $100 million.

The Chief Health Officer advised residents to relocate causing great distress and disruption to life. Further, at least 19 fire fighters were hospitalised due to poisoning.

The scale of this disaster and the resultant response only highlights the risk that coal combustion, whether within a mine disaster or within a power plant’s normal operation, poses to health.

We know that the combustion of coal releases tiny particles that have the ability to enter deep into the lung. There is evidence demonstrating exposure to these particulates results in the development and exacerbation of asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), stunted lung development and lung cancer.

Cardiovascular risks include ischaemic heart disease and neurological effects include stroke and developmental delay. Yet these links do not figure prominently in energy planning or costings.

What is even more concerning is the double standards when it comes to restrictions of coal-fired power plants and wind farm exclusion zones.

Despite the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) and Australian Medical Association (AMA) both clearly stating that there no substantive evidence linking wind farms to any disorder of health, Victoria has restrictive regulations which essentially prevent wind farms being built 2km from a residential home.

Furthermore, wind turbines provide clean energy without the risk of catastrophic fires like in the Hazelwood mine. Finally, renewable energy allows rural and regional towns to generate local energy, negating the need for long power lines, a source of bushfires, travelling through the countryside.

Compare that to the Anglesea coalmine and power plant, located 500 metres from the nearest homes and 1 km from the local school. Children and residents are exposed every day to airborne particulate matter and poisonous sulphur dioxide released when coal is mined and burnt and this has led to a strong community movement to phase out the Anglesea coal mine.

There is little doubt this process exacerbates asthma and heart disease, putting developing children at real risk. Yet we have restrictive wind farm policies based on pseudo-science and relaxed policies with proven, damaging coalmines and power plants.

This is an absolute failure of rational and evidence-based policy making. Coal-fired power production does not only contribute to climate change, but is directly and insidiously harming the rural communities of Gippsland and Anglesea.

It is high-time we looked at phasing out these polluting juggernauts, introducing a Victorian renewable energy target to develop an efficient, low-cost energy system worthy of this leading state and re-evaluated the irrational exclusion limits of wind farms. We know that phasing out coal-fired power stations and strong climate change mitigation strategies will save money in the long term and importantly, save lives.

South Australia hasn’t fallen to pieces despite reaching 30% renewable energy production in 2014, even setting a target of 50% by 2025, and neither will Victoria. Increasingly Australia and Victoria are falling behind world leaders such as the UK and Germany, not to mention the recent USA-China agreement.

This election, let’s broaden the health conversation from the very important, but narrow, focus on ambulances. Labor have committed to reducing the wind farm exclusion zone; why not the Liberals?

Moreover, let’s look at phasing out Victoria’s most damaging power-stations and introducing a Victorian renewable energy target, neither of which Labor or the Liberals have any plan to do.

Unsurprisingly and irresponsibly, Labor quietly released their environmental policy only 4 days before the election. Unfortunately this does not mention any plan to phase out coal fired power plants, let alone bringing health into the conversation about energy production.

As for the Coalition, well it does not even appear to have an environment policy. No chance of health and climate change being addressed.

At least Victorian Labor has committed to reintroducing its meagre legislated emissions reduction target, which the Baillieu Government scrapped.

No doubt coal was useful in promoting economic development in the industrial ages. But not so long ago, a similar product with extremely useful properties was widely utilised in the state. It was used in housing to hospitals, in insulation to fire proofing. Then scientists and doctors realised it caused cancer, but it took decades to find the political will to act.

Let’s not make the mistakes we made with asbestos. Doctors know, communities know and both Denis Napthine and Daniel Andrews know that coal combustion causes cancer, lung disease and heart disease.

The evidence is clear, the time to bring health into the equation was yesterday.

Running for election without a plan to shut down coal-fired power stations when there are viable clean alternatives isn’t just negligent, it’s madness.

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• Tim Martin is a final year medical student at Monash University looking to specialise in paediatrics. This year he has completed an honours research year in vaccine safety at the Royal Children’s Hospital and Monash Children’s Hospital.

Tim is passionate about the intersection between health equity and politics and is involved with various non-partisan advocacy and health organisations such as the Australian Medical Students’ Association, International Federation of Medical Students’ Associations, Climate and Health Alliance and Doctors for the Environment Australia. He is a Diploma of Child Health candidate and has applied to study a Diploma of Liberal Arts (International Relations) next year.

• Read Croakey’s previous #VicVotes coverage here.

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