Smog is not something we should just learn to live with

Air pollution causes 3,000 deaths a year in Australia.

But unless you live in an area where air pollution is obvious (like the Latrobe Valley), you probably don’t really think about it until you’re trapped underneath it like Melbourne was last week.

Melbourne’s particulate fog last week most likely contributed to and exacerbated a range of health issues for people, including asthma, wheezing, shortness of breath, headaches and nausea.

The World Health Organisation says there is no safe exposure limit to this sort of pollution.

So I was interested to see the response from the relevant government agency, the Environment Protection Authority.

The EPA’s Chief Environment Scientist warned people with pre-existing cardiovascular conditions or who are over 65, under 15, or pregnant to avoid prolonged or heavy physical activity and limit time outside.

It’s not good enough that when meteorological conditions trap us inside a thick polluting fog we are simply warned to stay inside or not go for a run.

This is what happens regularly in the Latrobe Valley, where I grew up, on days when pollution from the coal-fired power stations or planned burns is trapped in the inversion layer and the community is advised to stay indoors.

The state government should be using the powers available to it to protect the Victorian community from toxic air pollution, so that weather conditions are irrelevant.

In its Air Quality Statement the Victorian government seeks suggestions on ‘cost effective’ ways to reduce air pollution.

As well as causing 3,000 deaths a year, the annual health cost of air pollution is conservatively estimated at between $11 billion and $24 billion.

Yet polluters and regulators always question the implementation of air pollution reduction measures and reduce it to ‘cost effectiveness’.

In contrast, the ‘cost-effectiveness’ of road safety campaigns is rarely questioned, despite the road-toll being nearly half the air pollution toll and road safety campaigns costing the Australian community an estimated $27 billion.

By contrast, the United States Clean Air Act requires the US Environment Protection Agency to set national air standards based entirely on protecting public health and welfare without consideration of cost.

Australia’s air pollution laws and ambient air standards are insufficient to protect human health.

The Victoria government is leading a national process to make standards stricter for ozone, oxides of nitrogen and sulphur dioxide pollution. (Sulphur dioxide is one of the toxins that would have been present in Melbourne’s particulate fog this week.)

But the process for stronger national standards is dragging on and is unlikely to be completed until after 2020.

In addition to putting a rocket under this process, the government can and should implement the changes available to it under existing Victorian law to reduce air pollution and move towards a pollution-free future.

Victoria is not bound to the national standards and can make Victorian air pollution standards stricter to better protect our health.

The best thing the government could do is to strengthen our air pollution laws, improve air pollution standards and include mandatory emissions reductions across all sectors – industry, vehicles and wood-fired heaters.

Rather than focus on the ‘cost effectiveness’ of pollution reduction measures, we should zero in on the cost benefits of cutting people’s health bills and hospital or GP visits.

The Government and the EPA should be using the powers they have to reduce air pollution, so we don’t have to restrict our activities.

No one wants to be trapped in a dirty, toxic fog.

In the Victorian Air Quality Statement, the state government has an opportunity to take strong action to stop this happening again.

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