3000 deaths caused by air pollution each year prompt calls for tougher standards


Air pollution results in 3000 premature deaths each year in Australia, costing the nation up to $24.3 billion in health expenses every year.

The figures, from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, are a direct result of an "ineffective and out-of-date regulatory system" for air pollution, according to not-for-profit legal practice Environmental Justice Australia.

The group is just one of many that will meet in Melbourne on Saturday at the National Air Pollution summit, calling for a national scheme that is binding on states and territories to combat air pollution in Australian cities, coalmining regions, coal transport corridors, and communities near coal-fired power stations and motorways.

"We are absolutely trailing [global standards]. This has been a well-researched health issue for 15 years or more and this issue shows how broken the regulatory system is," said Environmental Justice Australia's clean air lawyer, Phil Hill.

"It doesn't keep pace with science or community expectations in a modern era, when we expect government to be able to respond to health issues."

The main type of pollution in question is particulate matter (PM) pollution. It is made up of solid and liquid particles that are referred to as coarse (PM10 – about the width of a human hair), fine (PM2.5) or ultrafine particles (PM0.1).

Evidence from the World Health Organisation shows that exposure to PM pollution causes lung cancer, cardiovascular disease and strokes.

PM pollution will be the major focus of Saturday's summit, one month before a meeting of Australia's nine environment ministers, where they will agree on new national standards for particle pollution.

Australia's current standards were created in 1998, and require states and territories to submit a plan setting out how they propose to monitor air quality. But health and legal experts say they fail to meet the expectations of the World Health Organisation today.

"Fine particle pollution is a serious health problem, predicted to get worse in many urban areas and is not effectively managed by state governments," said Dr Ben Ewald, of Doctors for the Environment Australia.

In September, Doctors for the Environment Australia penned an open letter to NSW ministers, after new Environment Protection Authority air quality monitors in Newcastle showed three out of six sites had fine particulate matter (PM2.5) above the advisory standard of 8.0 ug/m3.

Groups attending Saturday's summit identify two major shortcomings in today's regulatory system: strong Commonwealth government leadership on standards, and mechanisms to ensure implementation occurs at state, territory, regional and pollution-source levels.

"In NSW over a five-year period we've had over 3000 breaches of major polluter licence conditions – only six of those ended up in court. The enforcement activity is minimal and does not provide any effective basis for companies to have a real incentive to lower their emissions," said Mr Hill.

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