9 November 2012

Australia is now the world’s second largest producer of iron ore, with University of Queensland researchers working to reduce exposure to toxic dusts.

Jack Ng, a toxicologist and Professorial Research Fellow at the National Research Centre for Environmental Toxicology (Entox), is leading the study, which is funded by the Cooperative Research Centre for Contamination Assessment and Remediation of the Environment (CRC CARE).

“With personal protective equipment, we can safeguard the health of miners, but what of the general population who inadvertently breathe in these iron ore particles?” Professor Ng said.

“Depending on weather conditions, the dusts can travel hundreds of kilometres away, yet our current air quality regulations do not discriminate between non-specific dusts and metal ore dusts, nor how toxic they are.”

Particles less than 10 micrometres in diameter (PM10) can permeate lungs deeply and are a major component of airborne iron-rich dust.

Toxicity depends on the composition of the compounds and minerals released from different mine-sites.

Professor Ng - who leads CRC CARE’s program on Minimising Uncertainty in Risk Assessment - and his team are investigating cost-effective ways of assessing air quality in-vitro (in test-tubes), specifically to measure the toxicological effects of iron-rich particulate matter.

“We are producing ‘synthetic lungs’ within the laboratory to discern how insoluble PM10 affects the lung surface, cell membrane and immune system so that we can predict lung damage, scarring and inflammatory outcomes,” he said.

“We believe it is vital to assess relative toxicities between inhalable iron-rich dusts so that the mining industry has a sustainable future with minimal impact on public health.”

Professor Ng said, if their methods prove successful, health authorities would routinely apply high-throughput air quality testing of crustal dust to all types of metal ore mines (where around 22 percent of all atmospheric dust originates).

“This would allow adverse health effects to be predicted and the integrity of Australian air quality ensured,” he said.

So far, the team has discovered that although immediate damage to the lungs from iron-rich PM10 is no greater than pure iron oxide, longterm adverse health effects are still under investigation.

Professor Ng said cross-testing with toxicological databases built onto dust-concentration maps needed to be conducted before definitive answers could be given.

Media: Professor Ng (07 3274 9020, j.ng@uq.edu.au)