Answer blowing in the wind
People wearing face masks because of poor air quality are more familiar in Asian megacities than New Zealand’s sleepy suburbs, but they have become a regular sight in semi-rural Yaldhurst. The culprit? Quarry dust.
The issue has been bubbling away for some time. The Press reported in March that dust from an expanding quarry was covering houses, gardens, cars and even pets on Old West Coast Rd in a layer of grime. Residents were advised to wear masks on their sections due to the possible health risk from the dust.
It was more than just a paranoid health panic. The fears seem to be genuine. Tests showed that the dust contained crystalline silica, which can cause lung cancer and silicosis. Residents were said to have exhibited symptoms consistent with silica exposure.
A former dean of science at the University of Canterbury, Dr Kelvin Duncan, called it an ‘‘unacceptable’’ and ‘‘serious’’ health risk, and argued that a quarry should not operate so close to roads and residents. The quarry was reported to be just 90 metres from the nearest house. Ministry of Environment guidelines recommend a minimum of 500m. Others argue for a full kilometre or more.
That was in March. But the wheels of regulation always grind slowly. This month, Anna Youngman, who became the masked face of the Yaldhurst residents and now suffers from respiratory issues, urged the Christchurch City Council to do something.
The moment has finally arrived. Old West Coast Rd residents have been issued with personal exposure meters. These will help Environment Canterbury (ECan) ‘‘understand their exposure’’ even though it is hard to imagine that samples taken during a wet July or August, rather than a dry and windy Canterbury summer, will give a full picture of the problem.
An ECan manager explained that the ‘‘intent of the monitoring programme is to gather sufficient data that the medical officer of health can use to determine if levels of dust and respirable crystalline silica from quarrying activities pose a long-term health risk to residents’’. This statement was made despite earlier tests revealing the presence of crystalline silica in the dust.
Duncan told ECan councillors on Thursday that some residents were displaying symptoms consistent with earlystage ‘‘progressive and incurable’’ silicosis. There is no medical solution. If it is revealed that the residents do indeed have silicosis, and that it was caused by the neighbouring quarries as residents suspect, then this public health disaster will have been a direct side-effect of poor regulation.
Previous guidelines appear to have been minimal and unsatisfactory. ECan told quarry operators to ensure that no dust goes beyond the boundary of the quarry. But Duncan’s expert view is that the dangerous material emitted by the quarry will be invisible.
The urgent demands of the Christchurch rebuild have been behind the rapid expansion of quarries on the outskirts of the city, but it seems incredible that the bestpractice guidelines of the Ministry for the Environment could have been ignored and that an activity with such negative health potential went largely unregulated by local authorities. Time will tell if the response has been too slow.