MORE than 23,000 Hunter school students spend their lunchtimes within 500 metres of the Hunter’s coal rail corridor.
A review of the locations of Hunter public and private schools has shown 16per cent of school grounds, 60 schools, are within walking distance of the region’s coal railway lines.
It means students spend their lunchtimes playing while breathing air filled with coal dust emanating from passing trains.
View Hunter schools located near the coal rail corridor in a larger map
Click on the pin to see details of a particular school. Note: Measurements are estimates based on street maps and measured from the shortest distance as the crow flies. Enrolments are based on 2012 mid-year state school figures and 2011 Catholic school figures. * Is above 500metres but is in uninterrupted space.
Many also spend their days in classrooms without air-conditioners or air filters to protect them from damaging particulates that are contained in the dust.
Two Hunter schools even have dust monitors in place.
The NSW Minerals Council said it took the issue of air quality seriously and had backed research and monitoring that would lead to better understanding.
Singleton GP Dr Tuan Au has been investigating a link between open-cut mining operations and rising respiratory illness in his community and has thrown his support behind a Newcastle Herald campaign to put covers on the trains.
He conducted a study three years ago that involved more than 680 students in the Singleton area and found one in six had diminished lung function, which was on the ‘‘high side’’ compared to other areas.
In nearby Branxton where children were further from the mines only one in 20 had lower lung function.
Dr Au said the small particulates in the dust had been shown to damage lungs in children.
‘‘The membrane in the lung is not mature enough,’’ he said. ‘‘The particulates cause inflammation in the lung and vessels. Inflammation causes destruction.’’
Maitland-Newcastle Diocese Catholic Schools Office said two primary schools, St James’ Muswellbrook and St Joseph’s Denman, had dust monitoring devices in place.
Special precautions were also taken by St Catherine’s Kindergarten to Year 12 College at Singleton where staff brought students indoors when it was windy or dusty.
‘‘The Catholic Schools Office and its schools follow the advice of Hunter New England Health, however [they] are open to all initiatives which lead to cleaner air,’’ an office spokeswoman said.
A NSW Education Department spokesman said no schools had approached it about coal dust as a health issue.
‘‘The department and schools would co-operate with the health or environmental authorities if they saw schools as having a role to play,’’ he said.
‘‘Any parents with concerns are advised to seek medical advice.’’
Charlton Christian College at Fassifern is separated from the rail line by a small amount of bushland.
Principal Sue Skuthorpe said the school previously opposed a semi-open-cut mine nearby because of concerns about particulates in the air and backed the Newcastle Herald’s campaign.
‘‘We don’t see the trains, but we can hear them,’’ she said.
‘‘To be polite to your neighbours is something we value and to cover the load over the fence and minimise dust coming off is that.
‘‘It’s something that would probably not cost them a lot of money and would be beneficial.’’
NSW Minerals Council chief executive Stephen Galilee said it was important to monitor air quality and establish the facts .
Mr Galilee said coal-train dust could be influenced by train speeds, distances travelled, coal moisture content, loading techniques and the shape of the coal in the wagon.
The council had reviewed sites to improve dust management, funded research on dust-management techniques and funded the Upper Hunter Air Quality Monitoring Network.
He said specific studies in NSW were needed and the council supported current studies.
‘‘We’re keeping a close eye on the progress of this work so we can develop the right response and implement better methods of dust suppression,’’ he said.
Dr Au said the longer children were exposed to pollution the more lung damage done.