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Health concerns about aviation fuel sniffing in Arnhem Land

Date posted: 12 June 2017

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. At least 70 young people on Elcho Island are known to have sniffed the volatile substance.

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.

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.

The Marthakal group which runs the airport has taken numerous steps to prevent access to avgas, including increased security lighting and CCTV coverage at the airport. 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 Yvonne Sutherland, Chief Executive of the Marthakal Group said. ‘There has not been a single incursion into the airport since the security guard was installed.’ The Marthakal Group believes building a high-secure facility to lock its planes in overnight would be the best long-term solution.

In an effort to educate young people about the dangers of sniffing, Miwatj Health which runs clinics across North East Arnhem land has had a mental health team 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,’ Aboriginal Health Practitioner, Ms Joan 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. The Northern Territory Government has set up a ‘critical response’ involving all stakeholders affected by avgas sniffing.

Source: ABC news


Last updated: 12 June 2017
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