Air pollution: Strong national laws needed now

Did you know that 3,000 Australians each year die from the effects of air pollution?

Whether it’s breathing coal dust blown off the back of coal trains, inhaling diesel fumes in areas with high volumes of trucks, or finding your town engulfed by a cloud of toxic smoke from a burning coal mine, the air that they breathe is an issue for Australians across the country.

State Environment Ministers haven’t managed to fix the problem. The best they’ve done so far is to “consider working towards finalising [a national clean air] agreement by 1 July 2016.”

That’s the first step, but actually implementing a clean air agreement could take years. In the meantime, 3,000 Australians are left to die each year.

Australians authorities haven’t exactly been rushing to fix the problem.

Air pollution standards are set by the National Environmental Protection Measure (Ambient Air Quality). They were supposed to be reviewed in 2005(2), but it actually took until 2011 for the review to be completed.

The review found that “there are significant health effects at current levels of air pollution in Australian cities”, that the current standards “are not meeting the requirement for adequate protection of human health” and made 23 recommendations for change; none of which has been implemented. Following the review COAG did identify air quality as a ‘Priority Issue of National Significance’ in 2011 and in 2012 they agreed to have a ‘National Plan for Clear Air’ completed by the end of 2014.

In 2013, a Senate Committee inquiry into the impacts of air pollution found that air pollution is a significant problem in many parts of Australia. The Australian Medical Association’s submission said that the current air quality standards had failed to keep pace with scientific evidence, that they were poorly monitored and enforced and needed to be reformed.

So far, so little real action.

Greg Hunt, Federal Environment Minister, knows this is a big problem. He said himself: “… I would like to complete a National Clean Air Agreement by 1 July 2016. The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare estimated that urban air pollution was responsible for more than 3000 early deaths in 2003. This is a critical national issue and I would like it to be a signature objective of my watch.”

Fine words, but where’s the action?

Given that the standards were supposed to be reviewed and updated back in 2005, using Mr Hunt’s own numbers 33,000 Australians will have died preventable deaths by the time state environment ministers can agree on how they should tackle the issue.

We have good data on the sources of the problem. It’s easy to identify the major causes of the pollution and implement measures to prevent it. The one tangible outcome from the meeting was that regulation impact statements (an assessment of the costs and benefits of change) for the better regulation of ‘off road spark engines’ (lawn mowers and boats) as well as wood heaters will now be prepared.

These are three very significant sources of air pollution and any improvement would be a very positive outcome. The only problem is that lawnmowers, boats and wood heaters are only responsible for 3% of the fine particle emissions that the World Health Organisation describes as “associated with a broad spectrum of acute and chronic illness, such as lung cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and cardiovascular diseases.”

If governments were serious about solving this problem, it would seem more logical to look at the single biggest source first. That’s coal, which produces around half of all fine particle pollution.(11)

Public campaigns to deal with coal trains in Queensland and NSW and the impacts of coal mining in towns like Morwell in Victoria’s Latrobe Valley have been active for some time. But these will not be dealt with before 2016 at the absolute earliest.

The Centre for Air Quality and Health Research and Evaluation is quite clear: exposure to particulate pollution causes increased risk of death, worsens heart and lung diseases and increases the risk of asthma attacks. These risks are all worse for vulnerable groups, like the elderly and children. With so many lives at stake, hot air from politicians just isn’t good enough. Environmental Justice Australia is calling for strong national leadership from the Federal government. An National Air Pollution Act would legislate for strong standards, protecting the most important resource we have: the air that we breathe.

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