Sleepers' hidden threat

Flynn resident Andrew Symons is concerned community members who took ex-railway sleepers for firewood are unaware of the harmful health impacts associated with burning the wood. photograph tom morrison

Flynn resident Andrew Symons is concerned community members who took ex-railway sleepers for firewood are unaware of the harmful health impacts associated with burning the wood. photograph tom morrison

A Latrobe Valley resident believes they have been exposed to hazardous chemicals, after using ex-railway sleepers as firewood, which are highly toxic when burnt.

Flynn resident Andrew Symons said V/Line workers upgrading the railway between Traralgon and Bairnsdale told residents the sleepers could be taken once works had ceased.

Mr Symons said many community members had taken the discarded wooden sleepers to use as firewood.

"Last year in July and August they replaced a lot of the railway sleepers along the line and left big piles of them on the side of the road," Mr Symons said.

"I asked (the V/Line workers) and they said, 'just wait until we finish and you can get them'."

Last week Mr Symons burnt some of the sleepers in his indoor wood heater before his family began complaining of sore throats and eyes.

"We just used the sleepers, we didn't use anything else and for five hours our eyes were burning, our throats were burning," Mr Symons said.

After Mr Symons' wife searched the internet for information, she was shocked to find the sleepers were toxic if burnt and even contained fragments of asbestos originating from asbestos-made train brakes.

"There are actually government health warnings on this stuff and we didn't know," Mr Symons said.

"It's got oil on it, diesel spilt through it, they spray the railways with Roundup or weed killer.

"All this is in the timber and everyone just thinks 'free firewood'."

Mr Symons wished to warn others of the harmful effects from burning the sleepers.

He also believes a Rosedale resident had taken a large stockpile of sleepers to sell as firewood and was unaware of its harmful health impacts.

"The pile was the size of a bus. A lot of people got it and I guarantee you there are people out there that are not well and they don't know why," Mr Symons said.

"There were piles all the way from Melbourne down to Bairnsdale, there were some at Minniedale Road and Flynn Creek Road.

"I don't believe V/Line should be letting people have it to burn.

"Apparently in Melbourne they have police guarding the stacks."

According to V/Line, in metropolitan areas sleeper piles were guarded to prevent the public from taking the wood.

"Under no circumstances should any railway sleeper be used as firewood," V/Line spokeswoman Clare Steele said.

"Sleepers are often contaminated with herbicides and fuel and when burned, potentially harmful toxic fumes can be released.

"V/Line staff should never give away used sleepers and we ask local residents to never take sleepers home."

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