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breach national safety standards. Photograph: Suree Pritchard/AAP

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Joshua Robertson

@jrojourno
Wednesday 17 December 2014 12.54 AEDT
Last modified on Thursday 27 October 2016 10.36 AEDT
A major hardware chain has claimed that air pollution in the Queensland mining town of Mount Isa was a likely cause of its employee’s damaging brain infection.
Lawyers for Bunnings, fighting a $700,000 lawsuit in the supreme court, argued that sulphur dioxide emissions in the town were a plausible trigger for the woman’s meningitis and encephalitis.
Janelle Cowen instead argued she fell ill from breathing in dust from spilled chicken manure sold as “Rooster Booster” fertiliser that she spent several hours sweeping up at Bunnings’ Mount Isa store in 2008.
Cowen, 50, fell into an extended coma the following day and suffers from lingering “cognitive dysfunction”.

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Bunnings denied the clouds of fine chicken manure dust caused her illness, instead arguing “the presence of atmospheric sulphur dioxide in Mount Isa” as well as her own history of smoking were “at least equally likely causes”.
Mount Isa’s sulphur dioxide levels, which have been attributed to smelting operations by Xstrata-Glencore’s Mount Isa mines, regularly breach national safety standards, including 11 times in a single month last year.
Long term exposure to the industrial by-product has been linked to respiratory illness and acidification of soil and waterways.
Justice Alan Wilson in a decision delivered on Tuesday found in Cowen’s favour, saying she breathed in large amounts of manure dust which “seriously aggravated her upper respiratory tract” directly leading to her infection.
“There was evidence that, in 2008, Mount Isa had ‘issues’ with respect to atmospheric sulphur dioxide and it is recognised in the literature that this is a risk factor for invasive pneumococcal disease,” he said.
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“It was submitted that the plaintiff, as a resident of and worker in that town, had been exposed to that gas on a chronic rather than an acute basis.
Wilson said while there was “evidence of a ‘spike’ in airborne sulphur dioxide concentrations on (the day in question)”, that reading was taken too far from the Bunnings store to be useful.
Contracting the brain infection via either exposure to sulphur dioxide or cigarette smoke was possible but required “awfully bad luck”, he found.
That she fell ill soon after exposure to the manure dust “accords with common sense and provides an acceptable causative pathway, according to the appropriate legal test”.
Wilson ordered Bunnings pay her $700,000 in damages as well as her legal costs.

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