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Global health experts consulted over Morwell

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Health concerns over Morwell fire

Global health experts are consulted over the continuing blaze at Morwell as police hunt for the arsonist responsible for setting the Hazelwood open cut mine alight.

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Victorian health authorities are receiving advice from international experts on the potential health effects of black smoke and ash that continues to blanket the town of Morwell weeks after a fire at a nearby coalmine.

Residents have been encouraged to leave town for a "respite break" in nearby towns, but the situation is still being treated as a short term incident and an emergency evacuation for Morwell's 13,000 population has not been declared.

When asked what would constitute "long term exposure" Chief Health Officer Rosemary Lester said the Health Department was seeking more advice from national and international experts, but declined to say who those experts were.

Fire in the Hazelwood coal mine. Click for more photos

Fire in the Hazelwood coal mine

Inside the burning Hazelwood coal mine. Photo: Keith Pakenham

More than 600 residents plan to gather on the weekend to discuss their health concerns and the prospect of seeking legal recourse.

On Wednesday Dr Lester said the department was working with the Environmental Protection Authority to monitor air quality, which remained "poor" but not dangerous. She said carbon monoxide levels had not exceeded the EPA's safe level guidelines.

"We don't believe there's a necessity to evacuate, we are saying to people if you can get out of town for a short period of time that's fine," she said.

An evacuation plan has been created in case the situation worsens, but carbon monoxide levels would need to consistently remain above a certain point for an extended period of time to trigger it, Dr Lester said.

"Our priority at the moment is to concentrate of the short term health affects that we know that the smoke can cause," she said.

"We know that the fine particles in the smoke can get down into the lungs and that can cause short term health effects like exacerbation of asthma, worsening of heart or other lung conditions."

Children, the elderly, smokers and pregnant women are most at risk of short term health issues.

There have been reports that Ambulance Victoria and police have advised their pregnant staff to avoid the Hazelwood open-cut coalmine due to the carbon monoxide-related health issues.

But Dr Lester said pregnant women in the general community were not at risk. "Carbon monoxide is being constantly monitored across the the town and there haven't been any levels of concern," she said.

Dr Lester encouraged residents to "stay out the smoke" and stay with relatives out of the area or attend a health assessment in Morwell staffed by nurses and paramedics.

Masks are also being provided through a community health centre and the CFA to residents, she said.

"Although the smoke and the ash is very distressing and annoying for people to live through what we are concerned about is what we can't see rather than what we can see.

"The carbon monoxide is the thing which we would be really concerned about, the EPA is monitoring that constantly for us and we haven't seen levels rise to anywhere near a level where we would be concerned."

However, the Health Department is still "receiving information" about the possible health effects of small particle pollution and there are no standard levels to trigger an evacuation, she said.

"We're continuing to talk to national and international experts on this to ensure that we're getting the best possible advice on this," Dr Lester said.

"The evidence is really not there to distinguish it [fine particle exposure in the area] from walking around a busy intersection in Melbourne."

Fire Services Commissioner Craig Lapsley said yesterday's wind and temperatures had put pressure on firefighting efforts at the mine, which continues to burn out of control and is expected to continue for days.

More than 200 firefighters in each shift are still battling the blaze.

A grass fire jumped out of the mine on Tuesday but has been contained. The nearby power station's output was reduced by 20 per cent for several hours with conveyor belts taken off line.

Mr Lapsley said there would be more challenging conditions next week but that “if everything goes right " the fire could be contained within 14 days.

Community members have been receiving health assessments at the community centre in Morwell, he said.

"The mood, although very focused about their health, was a very good discussion," Mr Lapsley said. "They want to know what's happening to them."

Morwell residents who attended a press conference at the incident control centre in the nearby town of Traralgon said they were afraid for their health and felt they were not receiving adequate information.

A respite centre has been set up at the Moe Town Hall for residents to take a break from the smoke, and residents can call 1800 006 468 to meet with the Department of Human Services about relocation support.

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