High levels of arsenic and other toxins have been detected in fire-affected Western Australian towns after a timber treatment plan went up in flames on Saturday.
Residents of Hester and Bridgetown, almost three hours’ drive south of Perth, were called to a community meeting this afternoon and advised they could not return to their homes.
“Well I’m concerned, my wife and I, we’re both 74 years old,” resident Jim Anderson said.
“Arsenic lands out of a cloud, it might be 10 times stronger there than it is there.”
More than 600 tonnes of treated timber burned, causing copper chrome arsenate, a timber preservative, to spew from the facility.
Up to 28 homes were contaminated.
Residents have been offered masks and cleaning equipment while professional hazardous material workers are removing toxic piles of ash and dust.
Danny Moscon from DFES said emergency workers were operating as quickly as possible to reduce risks in the area.
“They use a product pretty much like Bondcrete, so that’ll fix it and stabilize the product,” he said.
“They put a color in it for the ash and if there’s any asbestos on site they’ll put a different color in that.”
One Australian university report titled Treated Timber, Ticking Timebomb said copper chrome arsenate, even at low levels was poisonous to humans.
It suggested if burnt the ash must be removed or buried, due to the smoke containing “high levels of arsine gas and dioxins.”
Professor Yuben Moodley from the University of Western Australia’s Institute for Respiratory Health said inhalation of the chemicals posed a significant risk.
“Continuous exposure can cause cancer down the track, yes they are carcinogens,” he said.
“I think it’s a danger all round, children are obviously more vulnerable.”
Inside ‘hellish’ battle to contain WA bushfires
Government agencies at today’s community meeting advised cleaning and washing homes to reduce the risks of contamination.
All water tanks must be drained safely and fruit from trees discarded.
Many residents are calling for the timber plant to be permanently abolished.
Resident Rebecca Stucken said she has considered moving from the town.
“What’s going to happen when it’s a really windy day and it kind of gets all blown around again is probably my biggest concern,” she said.
“I don’t want to move but I don’t know.”