Deadly air pollution continues to be a problem in Australia because air quality standards are being misused, say experts.
The standards governing six key outdoor pollutants are being interpreted as an acceptable upper limit of pollution, says health statistician Associate Professor Adrian Barnett of the Queensland University of Technology.
But, he adds, this approach is not supported by scientific evidence.
“Study after study has shown there is simply no safe level of air pollution; health problems in the population rise in line with increases in average pollution levels,” says Barnett.
He says many reports to state governments imply it is safe to pollute up to the limits provided in the National Environment Protection Measure for Ambient Air Quality (Air NEPM).
“I have lost count of the number of government-commissioned environmental reports that have used this fallacy. This practice should have ended years ago,” says Barnett, who lays out his argument in today’s issue of theAustralian and New Zealand Journal of Public Health.
“The governments are getting bad advice.”
Air pollution causes an estimated 3.7 million deaths per year worldwide, and 3000 deaths per year in Australia.
Drawing on existing research on the health effects of air pollution, Barnett has quantified the number of extra deaths that could result from using the Air NEPM standards as an upper limit for five pollutants in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane.
“I’ve found that increasing pollution levels to just below the NEPM standards would cause the deaths of an extra 6000 people each year,” says Barnett, whose analysis included carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, sulphur dioxide and particulate matter (diameter less than 2.5 micrometres and less than 10 micrometres).
“The increase would hospitalise a further 20,700 people per year across those cities.”
New infrastructure projects
One major area of concern to Barnett is the application of the Air NEPM in the approval of new freeways and tunnels.
“Traffic pollution is roughly 80 per cent of pollution in Australia,” he says. “It’s the one that most people are exposed to.”
He says while car technology has led to a fall in some pollutants, others remain a problem.
Barnett points to an environmental report for the East West Link in Melbourne that implies predicted increases in particulate matter (PM10) would be below the Air NEPM standard and therefore not pose an “unacceptable risk to human health”.
He says even though such projects are likely to increase air pollution and health effects in the local area, the NEPM effectively silences discussion about this fact.
“Locals who are concerned about the potential health effects have found it difficult to get past the argument that the increases are below the standards and therefore everything is fine,” says Barnett.
“Instead of using a simplistic (and wrong) threshold argument, studies should be based on a thorough cost-benefit analysis, where the increase in health effects due to increased exposure is quantified.
“The increased health effects can then be balanced against the economic and societal benefit of the new road, tunnel or industry.”
Environmental epidemiologist Dr Christine Cowie of the University of Sydney agrees with Barnett’s concerns about the use of thresholds.
She points to an environmental impact statement for the proposed NorthConnex tunnel in Sydney, which found there would be a slight increase in pollution around exhaust stacks.
“Their argument was because it was below the standards and it was such a small increase that it was all fine,” says Cowie. “Whereas really we should ensure new projects don’t contribute to more air pollution being emitted.”
Standards not enough
A 2011 review of the Air NEPM found that in light of evidence relating to thresholds “compliance with the standards alone may not achieve the desired environmental outcome of ‘adequate protection’.”
Among other things, it recommended “exposure reduction targets” for pollutants.
But, according to environmental Lawyer Nicola Rivers from non-profit group Environmental Justice Australia, little has been done since then.
“The 2011 recommendations that all the states and territories agreed to have not been implemented yet,” she says, although there is currently public consultation underway on some of them.
Rivers points to other failings of the NEPM system, which requires states to monitor pollution.
“There are no consequences if you don’t monitor and report back and you are certainly not required to reduce pollution levels to below those standards.
“It’s completely ineffective,” she says “Our view is we need to move beyond the NEPM.”
A spokesperson for the federal environment minister, Greg Hunt says the Emissions Reduction Fund will reduce (greenhouse) emissions by 5 per cent on 2000 levels by 2020, and future research funded by National Environmental Science Programme will focus on clean air issues.
“The Government is also committed to implementing a National Clean Air Agreement with the states by 1 July 2016.”
But Rivers says what’s needed are national air pollution laws that require the states to reduce pollution.
“My question is, what is the government going to do to actually ensure air pollution levels reduce in Australia,” she says. “I don’t think anything that’s happening at the moment is actually going to result in that.”