Health Effects from Pollution from the Charcoal Plant


On 26 March 2002, the Charcoalition alerted the community about the possibility of mercury being released from the proposed charcoal plant at Mogo, and asked Planning NSW to investigate this issue. The Charcoalition was accused of scaremongering.

Planning NSW state in their Assessment Report that there will be 6.85 grams of mercury produced by the charcoal plant each hour. The department assessed that mercury emissions would ‘not pose a significant air quality impact’.

The Charcoalition was right in raising this issue – mercury will be emitted by the Charcoal plant!

80% of mercury vapour is absorbed and deposits in the somatic cells and red blood cells. Only 20% is exhaled!

Mercury is the second most toxic element in our world. The first being Plutonium. A safe level of mercury for humans has never been established! Methylmercury (organic) comes primarily from ingestion of fish contaminated with mercury, particularly fresh water fish. Most is excreted in the feces, however a significant amount may be absorbed via the gastrointestinal tract (1950 tragedy in Minamata Bay Japan)

How does the department justify that the the emissions would “not pose a significant air quality impact?” Where does Planning NSW think that the 6.85x24x350 g or 57.540kg per year of mercury disappear to? Has Planning NSW bothered to check on the work done at Calgary University on neuronal damage caused by mercury?

Particulate matter

Some 7000 Australians die every year from the effects of particulate matter in the air that we all breathe.

Particulate matter is produced from burning fuel. The major source of particulate matter in Australia comes from domestic wood heaters (53%), forest fires, burn-offs, motor vehicles & some industrial activities, in that order.

This proposed charcoal plant has the potential to add to the high levels of air pollution that we already all have to breathe from domestic wood heaters (about 66% of households in the area burn wood for heating), burn-offs & bushfires. The charcoal and silicon plant operating in W.A. (which, we were told by the proponents of this plant, emitted no pollutants) emits the following into the atmosphere each six months: carbon monoxide 200,000kgs, particulate matter pm10 5,400kgs, volatile organic compounds 1,300kgs, sulfur dioxide 58,000kgs (1). All of these compounds are harmful to our health and the environment.

The pollution that could possibly be emitted to the air from this proposed Charcoal Plant will go on for the next 40 years.

They currently only have to report on particulate matter of 10 microns in size. We understand that the majority of particle pollution from this plant would be below 10 microns in size – it would be 2.5 microns and less, resulting in 1000’s more kg of deadly Particulate matter which they don’t have to report.

The World Health Organisation states that “there is no safe level of exposure to Particulate Air Pollution.”

Particulate Matter are fine particles of dust carried on air currents, they are sized in millionths of a metre, i.e. PM10 is one ten millionth of a metre. If this plant goes into operation they will only have to report to the National Pollution Inventory particles released to the atmosphere of PM10 size, when we understand that the majority of particles released to the air will be in the size range of PM2.5 or smaller.

This means that the most health damaging part of Particulate Matter is taken into the deepest part of the Lungs along with any cancer causing agent adhering to it. By the way PM2.5 cannot be removed by the body’s filtration system, ie nose, throat and mucus, etc.

We understand that the Environmental Impact Study won’t take into account Particulate matter below PM10 because the protocols say they don’t have to,…. but that will be no comfort to us who will be breathing in PM’s smaller than PM 10.

Other studies have shown that long term exposure to this type of air pollution i.e. 25 years or more may shorten life expectancy by 10 to 12 years.

20% of Australians already have some form of lung disease, 40% of all deaths are a direct result of environment pollution.

Southern area health services states that this region has one of the highest rates of “heart, lung disease & asthma in Australia”.

The people that are at most risk from this air pollution are pregnant women – a cause of miscarriages, babies and young children, – retards lung growth and is a trigger for asthma, the elderly – especially those with heart and lung disease. Studies in the U.S. believe that 25% of SIDS cases can be linked to Particulate air pollution.

You will be told by the company that the gases and compounds from burning this wood will be burnt off by a flare, presumably fuelled by LPG or other gasses. We are not convinced that this can be done successfully. If these pollutants mentioned earlier can be disposed of so completely and easily why isn’t this technology used on coal fired power stations.

There are too many IFs, BUTs, and WHYs,…. too many unanswered questions,… too many facts that won’t be taken into consideration by the EIS, the State Government or Australian Silicon.

The Federal Government through Sen. Hill on the 18th of September, through the NEPC, announced that Australia was to adopt PM2.5 as the level of particulate pollution that caused the most severe health effects and highest mortality and that by 2003 PM2.5 will have to reported. This would make it impossible for wood heaters to operate within the law and plants like the charcoal plant would have to spend millions of dollars on cleaning up their polluting.

So far on this page we have looked at the effects of possible pollution from the plant. What about the effects of pollution from the 80 trucks per day, producing in the region of 60 tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions per annum (2).

We want our environment to improve, not deteriorate further!

(1) National Pollutant Inventory Database

Health Impacts of the Mogo Charcoal Plant

Kathryn Maxwell, President, Conservation Council of the South East Region and Canberra

At the public meeting on the charcoal plant held in Canberra in December 7th 2001, Kathryn gave a short presentation on the health impacts from the burning of wood. Kathryn has provided this paper following requests from a number of people who wanted more information for inclusion in their submissions to the EIS.

The Mogo charcoal plant will process 200,000 tonnes of wood each year, or 548 tonnes per day. Numerous health studies around the world have confirmed the association between fine particulate pollution and adverse respiratory and cardiac health effects.

Health effects of wood smoke (Fred Greef, Washington State Department of Ecology, Air quality program)


The particles in wood smoke are too small to be filtered by the nose and upper respiratory system, so they wind up deep in the lungs. They can remain there for months causing structural damage and chemical changes.

Poisonous and cancer causing chemicals often enter the lungs by adhering to tiny wood smoke particles.

The primary pollutants from the burning of wood are carbon monoxide, particulate matter, and organic gases including aldehyde gases such as acrolien, which is a serious respiratory irritant.

General effects of burning wood

Exposure to the emissions from wood burning causes a decrease in lung function and an increase in the severity of lung disease. It also aggravates heart conditions and carbon monoxide causes heart pain. Respiratory illnesses in children increase including lower respiratory infections such as acute pneumonia, or bronchiolitis, which are major causes of disease and death in young children. It also aggravates asthma, emphysema, pneumonia and bronchitis. It irritates the eyes and triggers headaches and allergies. Long term exposure may lead to emphysema, chronic bronchitis, arteriosclerosis and nasal, throat, lung, blood and lymph system cancers.

Carbon Monoxide is a colorless, odorless gas produced when wood is burned. It reduces the ability of blood to carry oxygen to body tissues. High exposures can lead to death. Lower levels lead to increased hospitalisation for individuals with heart and circulatory disease, lower birth weights, and increased deaths of newborns.

Particulate matter larger than 10 microns in diameter collects in the upper respiratory system (throat and nose) and is eliminated by sneezing, coughing, noseblowing, spitting or the digestive system. Most particulate matter from the burning of wood is less than 10 microns in diameter. Most as less than 2.5 microns in diameter.

These particles are so small that they get past the cilia or hair-like structures of the respiratory tract cells. Cilia bear mucous and catch and help remove larger particulate matter from the lungs with a rhythmic motion. Tiny particles evade the cilia and collect in the most remote portions of the lungs, called alveoli – the tiny air sacs where oxygen enters the blood stream. They cause structural and chemical changes deep in the lungs.

Irritants (such as phenols, aldeydes, quinones, nitrogen oxides and sulphur oxides) contribute to health problems in the respiratory tract. Irritants interfere with the cilia and disrupt the flow of the particle-trapping mucus stream, resulting in more particulate matter entering the lungs. Exposure to pollutants from burning wood can lead to inflammation and pulmonary edema (swelling of lung tissue). Irritants can also cause allergic reactions.

Populations Most at Risk

Infants, children, pregnant women, senior citizens, and all those suffering from allergies, asthma, bronchitis, emphysema, pneumonia, or any other heart or lung illness are most affected by the emissions from burning wood and are sensitive to low levels.

The emissions from burning wood interfere with normal lung development in infants and young children and increases the risk of lower respiratory track infections such as bronchiolitis and pneumonia in young children.

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