No safe limit for air pollution

Air pollution, like smoking, has no safe level, shows new research.

An important new research paper published in the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Public Health has found that air pollution, like smoking, has no safe levels.

The paper, by Queensland University of Technology Associate Professor Adrian Barnett, criticises government policies which seek to manage the risks to ‘safe levels’.

Air pollution already kills 3000 Australians every year, and this new research strengthens our call for stronger laws to regulate air pollution effectively.

Professor Barnett’s paper shows just how dangerous it is to rely on the government’s current standards.  National standards are set in Australia using National Environment Protection Measures (NEPM)– but according to Professor Barnett, an increase in pollution levels to the maximum levels set by the NEPM standards would cause an additional 6000 deaths a year.

The NEPM does two things:

1. It sets national standards for 6 key pollutants
2. It requires governments to monitor those pollutants and report levels annually.

However the NEPM doesn’t require states to reduce pollution levels to below those standards, and there are no consequences for states that don’t monitor and report back. The problem, as Professor Barnett discusses, is that despite this lack of mandatory reporting, the standards in the NEPM are often used as a benchmark of what is ‘safe’ or the level of pollution up to which governments can set limits.

If the standards actually reflected a safe level of pollution this might not be so much of a problem, but as Professor Barnett shows, there is no ‘safe’ level of some of these pollutants, particularly the pollution which is most prevalent across Australia which is particulate matter (PM10 and PM2.5)

PM 2.5 was the main pollutant of concern in the Hazelwood mine fire in Morwell, due to the very fine particles of coal dust circulating in the air as smoke. Professor Barnett’s analysis of death rates in the Latrobe Valley during the 45-day Hazelwood coal fire showed a 15 per cent increase in the local death rate. His analysis shows that between 11 and 14 people died prematurely during the time of the fire as a result of air pollution.

In 2011, the body tasked with managing the NEPM, the National Environment Protection Council – essentially the Environment Ministers from all governments – recommended a raft of changes to improve the NEPM. These included better standards on particulate pollution. None have been implemented yet, although there is currently public consultation underway on some of them.

In our view, the NEPMs are no longer an effective way of getting national action on air pollution. We need to move beyond the NEPM.

Although Australia’s air quality is better than many other (mainly developing) countries, we should not be complacent. Air pollution in cities is a current problem. After all, 3000 Australians a year die from urban air pollution.  Just as concerning is the impact on mainly rural communities who live near a pollution source and experience daily levels of air pollution that far exceed what the rest of us experience.

Our laws do not provide those people with the level of protection needed to avoid harmful health impact. In fact Australia is far behind world’s best practice in air quality regulation. A good interim step would be to immediately adopt a compliance standard for fine particulate pollution. But even that would not be enough.

We believe that it is unjust that coal and other industries should be able to pollute a shared asset – the air that we breathe – and impact people’s health in this way. Vulnerable people should not be submitted to dangerous and damaging pollutants.

That’s why we’re working for much stronger air pollution laws in Australia. We think the Commonwealth Government should legislate a National Air Pollution Prevention Act that is binding on all States and Territories.

Australians deserve to have their health protected. Instead we have a government that puts the interests of polluters ahead of its people.

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