Update

Analysing the latest data from the National Pollutant Inventory (NPI)

The National Pollutant Inventory (NPI) is Australia’s annual report on toxic pollution. 

Their latest data (2020-21) has just been released, and our team has analysed the trends.  

Notably, our analysis shows AGL’s power stations across NSW and Victoria reported significant increases in some of the most toxic pollutants, even though energy generation in several stations dropped.   

What is also clear is that coal-burning power stations are one of the biggest sources of air pollution in Australia, pumping out some of the highest levels of toxins that are most dangerous to human health into the air we breathe.  

Substances like particle pollution (PM2.5, PM10), Sulfur dioxide (SO2), oxides of nitrogen (NOX) and Mercury.

Particle pollution (PM2.5, PM10) 

Fine particle pollution (PM2.5) from coal-fired power stations are tiny particles of burnt coal which are drawn down deep into the lungs and can cause asthma, stroke and heart attacks. Coarse particle pollution (PM10) from power stations comes from burning or grinding of coal and is also drawn into the lungs. The risks are highest for the elderly and children.

Sulfur dioxide (SO2) 

Exposure can induce headaches and anxiety. People with existing heart or lung conditions, such as asthma, are at increased risk. Repeated or prolonged exposure to moderate concentrations may cause inflammation of the respiratory tract, wheezing and lung damage.

Oxides of nitrogen (NOX)  

Low levels of NOX exposure can irritate eyes, nose, throat and lungs and can lead to coughing, shortness of breath, tiredness and nausea. Exposure can also result in a build-up of fluid in the lungs for 1-2 days after exposure. Breathing high levels of oxides of nitrogen can cause rapid burning, spasms and swelling of tissues in the throat and upper respiratory tract, reduced oxygenation of tissues, a build-up of fluid in the lungs, and even death.

Mercury  

The nervous system is very sensitive to all forms of mercury. Exposure to high levels of any types of mercury can permanently damage the brain, kidneys, and developing foetus. It is especially harmful to children. Effects on brain functions may result in irritability, shyness, tremors, changes in vision or hearing and memory problems.

Substances like mercury have significant, accumulative and irreversible effects on the environment and human health.  

Our analysis of NPI data found Victorian power stations are the highest emitters of mercury in the country. All three power stations emitted more than 1000kg of toxic mercury into the environment. The next eight biggest power stations in Australia combined emitted less than 400kgs.  

In NSW, all five power stations reported increased Mercury emissions. For example, Mt Piper had a 135% increase, even though energy generation had only increased by 56%. It emitted 17kg of toxic mercury into the environment, up from 7kg the previous year. 

The human impact of these statistics is important. Toxic air pollution from coal is seriously damaging the health of Australians across the country.  

Coal-fired power stations are one of the biggest sources of air pollution in Australia and they are pumping out some of the pollutants most toxic to human health:

  • Each year in Australia, toxic air pollution from coal-burning power stations kills 800 people and worsens conditions such as asthma, emphysema, chronic bronchitis and other respiratory diseases.  
  • Children and the elderly are particularly vulnerable to the direct health impacts of air pollution.  
  • As a result of toxic air pollution, around 850 babies are born every year with low birth weight.  
  • The annual bill of coal-burning power is $2.4 billion in healthcare costs– more than two-thirds the amount the federal government has spent on the COVID healthcare package.   

What’s clear from our analysis of the latest NPI is that there is no safe level of pollution, so while coal-burning power stations continue to operate, pollution control technologies should be a requirement to protect the health of the community.

Download our spreadsheet (Excel) to read our full analysis.

April 06, 2022
By Environmental Justice Australia
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