'It's time to act on Opal'

THE introduction of Opal fuel must be part of a wider strategy to combat the tragedy of petrol sniffing in the Katherine region, the Katherine Region Volatile Substance Working Party said after their latest meeting.

Local Indigenous health organisations, the Katherine Indigenous Alcohol Reference Group, youth groups and support services as well as representatives from Australian, Northern Territory and local governments gathered to support the rollout of Opal fuel across the Katherine region as a community-driven approach to tackle volatile substance abuse.

Mr Ian Woods, President of Wurli-Wurlinjang Health Service and elected Chair of the Working Party said wile the issue of youth sniffing petrol has been “with us for some time”, the Katherine region was currently facing a “concerning increase in this activity, particularly in the Wugularr Community and in Katherine”.

“While we all acknowledge that non-sniffable fuel will drastically reduce sniffing, we’re also well aware that it needs to be part of a wider plan that considers the social determinants of the problem.

“In other words, this is about not only how kids sniff, but also why they sniff.

“Programs for young substance abusers must include their family, extended family, and friends.

“Family members also need to be provided with skills and healthy alternatives for these kids.”

Dr Bruce Hocking, Wurli-Wurlinjang’s Director of Medical Services, said, petrol sniffing could result in a range of serious health problems, including pneumonia, asphyxiation, burns, coma, seizures, malnutrition, permanent brain damage, injuries and sudden death.

“There is also evidence of birth defects and disabilities in babies born to women who sniffed petrol,” he said.

But, he said, the tragedy of petrol sniffing would go beyond the poor health of the sniffer.

“Young people, especially those who become long-term, regular sniffers, often become isolated from their families and community.“

Australian Government research shows that the introduction of Opal, a low-aromatic fuel developed by BP, has helped reduce the incidence of petrol sniffing by up to 94 per cent in affected communities.

In the Central Australian community of Hermannsburg break-ins, vandalism, car thefts and sniffing related injuries fell significantly following the introduction of Opal.

But while community groups in Katherine are fighting for the roll-out of Opal fuel in Katherine, Minister for Indigenous Health, Warren Snowdon last week backed away from a mandatory legislation for the rollout, referring to it as a “legal minefield”.

The Central Australian Youth Link Up Service – a frontline petrol sniffing prevention program based in Alice Springs - has expressed disappointment at the Minister’s comments.

CAYLUS Manager Tristan Ray said a study commissioned by the Commonwealth Department of Health “came out in broad support of the legislation, and estimated that such laws would save $1.3 billion in public health system and other costs over 25 years”.

“We know Opal works - it’s time for the government to stop making excuses and act.”