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Australia's Clean Air Myth

I've been thinking a lot about air quality in Australia recently as I wrote up my submission in response to Victoria's Air Quality Statement, which will help shape a future air quality strategy for this state.  The Clean Air Statement presents a rosy picture for air quality in Victoria - our air is repeatedly described as "great" and "very good" - and this leaves the impression that air pollution is not a current health danger to Victorians.  Anecdotally, I have seen this attitude adopted by Australians around the country, who ask me why I need to research air quality in Australia and tell me that we already breathe clean air.  It is true that our air is cleaner than many of our neighbours, but this doesn't mean that it is healthy.  Air pollution in China, for instance, is one of the biggest handbrakes on development in what may soon be the world's biggest economy, and it is meaningless to compare it to Australia.

So, how big is Australia's air pollution problem?  It is estimated that air pollution causes over three thousand deaths a year, which is significant in a population of about 24 million.  As a preventable cause of death this is greater than car accidents and suicides.  Just two weeks ago the air quality index (AQI) in Melbourne was stuck at around 100 for days due to small particulates from wood burning - you can see the view from near where I live in the photo below.  Newspaper headlines, however, made it seem like weather was causing the pollution, instead of, well, the pollution itself.  A few weeks earlier and Sydney was grappling with unhealthy air as a result of controlled burns, but the national broadcaster was quick to tell us that air pollution is worse in Hong Kong and that we should just get over it.

The ability for state and federal governments to regulate air pollution in Australia is severely lacking, and I can't help but think this is due in part to our clean air myth.  And with rapidly growing cities under the influence of climate change, air pollution is likely only to get worse.  The National Environment Protection Measures (NEPMs) however provide very little regulatory power to deal with air pollution, and set uniformly lax standards.  Astoundingly, there will be no active standard for PM2.5 until 2025 [correction - there should be a standard in effect as of last month], because of a lack of evidence about fine particulate matter specific to Australia.  Meanwhile, standards set for PM10 and other ambient pollutants are looser than those recommended by the World Health Organization.  There is also no enforceable way to deal with the most toxic air pollutants, with the Air Toxics NEPM only tasked with data collection, and then just for five hazardous compounds.

Air pollution is impacting upon health and productivity across Australia, and we need rigorous and enforceable legislation to deal with it.  But I don't see this happening until the media and our governments stop pushing the myth that our air is already clean.

Comments

  1. A government web page (see link below) states: "The PM2.5 standards were upgraded to performance standards from their previous status as advisory reporting standards."

    The page also notes that there should be no exceptions, apart from events directly related to bushfire, jurisdiction-authorised hazard reduction burning or continental-scale windblown dust -
    soe.environment.gov.au/theme/ambient-air-quality/topic/2016/national-air-quality-standards

    Surely the PM2.5 standard is just as much an active standard as all the other air quality standards? Jurisdictions should also be preparing for the even stricter limits (20 ug/m3 max daily average, 7 ug/m3 max annual average) by 2025.

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