Migraines, blood noses: Children ill after West Footscray blaze
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Migraines, blood noses: Children ill after West Footscray blaze

Children living near a creek contaminated by toxic chemicals following last week's West Footscray factory fire have since suffered migraines, nose bleeds and sore throats, parents have told a community meeting.

Authorities conceded the business at the centre of last Thursday's 17-hour inferno, which caused thick black smoke to billow across the western suburbs, had not been on their radar for storing dangerous goods.

Emotions ran high at the community meeting at Footscray Town Hall on Thursday night, where residents spoke of ill-health and confusion around the risks to public safety throughout the week since the fire.

The fire in West Footscray last week.

The fire in West Footscray last week.

Photo: Channel 7

Parents living along Stony Creek told the meeting their children had been suffering all week from migraines and sore throats, while others reported bleeding noses and respiratory problems from toxic fumes associated with chemicals leaking into the creek, particularly around popular Cruickshank Park.

Yarraville resident Claire, whose property overlooks Stony Creek, said her family has been unwell and she had ongoing respiratory issues and burning eyes from the fumes.

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“I did not feel like the initial health and safety component was handled well at all,” she said.

Claire said the EPA had warned people to stay away from the contaminated creek, yet signage was poor and the message wasn’t getting through to everyone.

Clean up crews pump out chemicals and fire retardant from Stony Creek after the fire.

Clean up crews pump out chemicals and fire retardant from Stony Creek after the fire.

Photo: Jason South

WorkSafe executive director of health and safety Paul Fowler told the meeting that his authority had been unaware there were dangerous goods being stored in the warehouse.

“The police are investigating that and we are liaising with police there,” he said.

“From our point of view, it wasn’t registered with us as a dangerous goods site as was required… so we weren’t aware of dangerous goods being on site.”

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A blitz on industrial sites in the West Footscray area in the wake of last week’s fiery inferno has identified almost 70 dangerous goods breaches.

The MFB had been alerted to potential risks at the site of the fire in recent months, but had been unable to access the property.

An inspection by Maribyrnong Council gave the building the all-clear in terms of meeting its structural safety requirements.

Victoria Police's superintendent Therese Fitzgerald told Fairfax Media that the Arson and Explosive Squad’s investigation is continuing, but the state of the site means it will be some time before they can carry out the work needed to determine whether the fire was suspicious.

The fire provoked anger among residents about potential health effects and a commitment from the state government to review authorities' response to the incident.

But residents and Maribyrnong Council also want the state government to make a firm commitment to funding recovery efforts in areas ravaged by chemical run-off.

Friends of Cruickshank Park secretary Sue Vittori, donning a black arm band, said her group is mourning the death of the creek and the impact of the contamination on the park.

“Cruickshank Park is an oasis in an inner-urban semi-industrial area,” she said.

“The Creek is effectively dead at the moment. Our park is a ghost park and this incident has taken away our oasis.”

Ms Vittori said the “pollution disasters” occurring in the west of Melbourne wouldn’t be tolerated in other parts of the city.

Up to 100 dead fish were found dead on the banks of Stony Creek since the fire.

Up to 100 dead fish were found dead on the banks of Stony Creek since the fire.

Photo: Jason South

EPA chief environmental scientist Dr Andrea Hinwood acknowledged that despite the MFB’s best efforts, a large amount of water and contaminants from the fire-fighting effort has entered Stony Creek and washed all the way down to the Yarra River.

“We have detected concentrations of pollutants that are harmful to aquatic life, in Stony Creek in particular,” she said.

Dr Hinwood said while a number of dead fish and eels have been washing up dead in the backwash area of the creek, contamination appears not to have stretched out into the river and bay.

She said it was too soon to know what the long-term impact would be on the mangroves at the backwash.

Dr Hinwood moved to assure the community that while the fire had taken a hefty environmental toll on the waterways, which were flooded with industrial chemicals, there was little long-term risk to human health.

She said air quality monitoring had continued to show low levels of fine particle pollution.

“We were very, very fortunate that the plume was as high and elevated as it was, because we didn’t really measure an awful lot,” she said.

“We saw some concentrations of particulate matter which is used as an indicator of smoke overnight on Thursday, but that dropped back on Friday.

“Fortunately the concentrations have continued to be good in the past few days.”

Dr Hinwood said although asbestos sampling had come up clear to date, asbestos could still become an issue in coming days as the clean-up gets underway.

“Measures will be put in place to make sure that there is no presence of asbestos leaving the site which might cause an impact.”

Efforts were made to assure the community that the relevant agencies were all working together in the wake of the environmental disaster, but questions were raised about events leading up to the fire.

Maribyrnong Council has set up a dedicated webpage to keep the community informed on the recovery efforts: maribyrnong.vic.gov.au/recovery