Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Aviation fuel sniffing sparks health emergency warning (with video)

Closed-circuit television footage shows young people climbing onto plane and siphoning fuel.

Authorities are warning of an unfolding public health emergency in north-east Arnhem Land, where dozens of young people are recording dangerously high lead levels after sniffing aviation fuel.

Security camera vision obtained by the ABC shows children climbing onto the fuselage of planes on Elcho Island and siphoning avgas from fuel tanks in the wings.

"If these children don't stop, they will have a very serious brain damage issue," said Joan Djamalaka Dhamarrandji, an Aboriginal health practitioner at Miwatj Health, which runs clinics across north-east Arnhem Land.

Petrol sniffing is not uncommon in remote communities, but rarely does it involve avgas, which contains lead.

At least 70 young people on Elcho Island are known to have sniffed the volatile substance, with the youngest believed to be seven years old.

About 30 more young people have elevated lead levels at Gapuwiyak.

Children in Milingimbi are also believed to be sniffing avgas.

Nine children and one adult have been transported from the region to Royal Darwin Hospital for medical treatment.

"We are talking about a high number of children with high blood lead levels."

Yolngu leaders on Elcho Island are deeply concerned and have held community meetings in an effort to end the problem.

"Our kids are ending up in hospital by getting infected by chemicals which is bad for them," said John Gurrumgurrum Burarrwanga from Makarr Dhuni, an organisation which represents clan groups on Elcho Island.

Lead levels of sniffers well above health guidelines

National health guidelines require investigations of blood lead levels higher than five micrograms per decilitre.

The majority of Elcho Island sniffers have levels six to 10 times that amount.

The health risk is particularly great for children, with lead exposure causing long-term physical and behavioural problems, as well as learning difficulties.

Young people have been breaking into the airport and sniffing avgas since March last year.

The behavior follows a previous sniffing outbreak, which involved aerosol spray cans, in 2015.

"The issue became an absolute crisis because it became a practically every night event," said Yvonne Sutherland, the chief executive of the local Marthakal Group, which runs the airport.

Concerns of avgas explosion

Ms. Sutherland is concerned not only for the health of the children, but also the safety of aircraft.

There is also the real risk of an explosion involving avgas, which is extremely flammable.

Marthakal has taken numerous steps to prevent access to avgas, including increased security lighting and CCTV coverage at the airport.

It also tried relocating three of its charter planes each night to Nhulunbuy, hundreds of kilometres away, over a two-week period last year.

But at a cost of $32,000 for the fortnight, it was an unsustainable measure.

Hopes guard dog will curtail break-ins

The Department of Chief Minister has now provided $70,000 for a guard dog and security officer to be stationed at the airport for 10 hours each night over the next three months.

"That's been extremely successful," Ms Sutherland said.

"There has not been a single incursion into the airport since the security guard was installed."

Marthakal believes building a high-secure facility to lock its planes in overnight would be the best long-term solution.

That would cost about $400,000, but Ms Sutherland said it would be money well spent.

'Kids are important'

In an effort to educate young people about the dangers of sniffing, Miwatj's mental health team has been meeting with the families of those involved.

It has also developed a poster in English and Yolngu Matha, which explains that continued sniffing could lead to death.

"The community has taken steps and are still looking at other steps to stop what is happening," Ms Dhamarrandji said.

Community leaders want extra government funding for local staff to expand health education campaigns in Yolgnu Matha, as well as extra recreational programs to keep young people on the island engaged.

"Kids are very important to our life because they are the future generations," Mr Burarrwanga said.

"So we don't want these things happening in the community or elsewhere."

The Northern Territory Government says it has set up a "critical response" involving all stakeholders affected by avgas sniffing.

"Any volatile substance abuse is very dangerous and concerning," said Jim Rogers from the NT Department of Chief Minister.

"However the emergence of avgas sniffing and the potential long-term consequences of elevated blood lead levels is a significant concern."

Story and video:  http://www.abc.net.au

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