Unsafe air pollution standards up for review

Matt Woodley

22/08/2019 3:58:20 PM

The RACGP has joined calls to reduce the amount of toxic pollution allowed in the air, at the same time as new research strengthens its link with increased death rates.

Melbourne on a day of heavy pollution.
Australia's ambient air quality standards have not been updated in more than 20 years.

A college submission to the National Environment Protection Council (NEPC) has urged policy makers to embrace tougher standards, as evolving research continues to show damaging health effects at lower concentrations than previously thought.
The submission, signed by RACGP President Dr Harry Nespolon, states a proposed variation to ambient air quality levels would ‘strengthen the outdated standards’, which have not been updated since 1998.
It recommends: 

  • Adopting a world’s best [nitrogen dioxide] NO2 standard of nine parts per billion (ppb).
  • Expanding the network of monitors to include roadside NO2 monitors at key roadside areas in each city where a significant population will be exposed.
  • Adopting the World Health Organization (WHO) one-day [sulphur dioxide] SO2 standard of eight ppb.
‘As the evidence base grows, there is a need to update standards in line with the science,’ it states.
‘There is no safe level of air pollution … [these] pollutants are quick acting respiratory irritants – and may worsen asthma symptoms and contribute to lung disease.
‘NO2 and possibly ozone [O3] negatively impact child lung development, cognitive development, and can cause lung and heart disease in adults.’
It also is in line with a position statement from a variety of other medical groups under the banner of Doctors for the Environment Australia (DEA), which urges environment ministers to tighten air pollution standards to protect health.
GP and DEA member, Associate Professor Vicki Kotsirilos, told newsGP Australia is lagging behind other developed nations.
‘People think Australia doesn’t have an air pollution problem, but we do,’ she said.
Australia’s current annual NO2 standard is set at the upper limit of 30 ppb, while the current one-day SO2 standard of 80 ppb is 10 times higher than that recommended by the WHO.
The NEPC has proposed lowering these standards to 19 ppb and 20 ppb respectively, but the DEA and RACGP are pushing for Australia to adopt ‘world’s best’ standards.
‘We [already] know that more than 3000 premature deaths each year are attributable to air pollution … there’s no point in reducing the cut-off above what causes harm,’ Associate Professor Kotsirilos said.
‘The cut-offs the NEPC is proposing are still not low enough … we need to be lobbying our state and federal ministers of environment because they’re revising the standards by the end of the year.’
The push for improved standards could yet gain more momentum, following the publication of the largest ever international study to investigate the short-term impacts of air pollution on death.
It analysed data on air pollution and mortality in 652 cities across 24 countries and regions, and found increases in total deaths linked to toxic inhalable particle matter (PM10) and fine particle (PM2.5) exposure.
Associate Professor Yuming Guo, from Monash University’s School of Public Health and Preventive Medicine, contributed to the study and said as there’s no threshold for the association between particulate matter and mortality, even low levels of air pollution can increase the risk of death.
‘The adverse health effects of short-term exposure to air pollution have been well documented, and known to raise public health concerns of its toxicity and widespread exposure,’ he said.
‘Though concentrations of air pollution in Australia are lower than in other countries, the study found that Australians are more sensitive to particulate matter air pollution and cannot effectively resist its adverse impacts.
‘Given the extensive evidence on their health impacts, PM10 and PM2.5 are regulated through the WHO’s Air quality guidelines and standards in major countries; however, Australians should pay more attention to the sudden increase in air pollution.’
Although the study primarily focuses on pollution from diesel sources, Associate Professor Kotsirilos said it is further evidence of the need to revise air standard pollution measures.
‘It impacts our patients directly. Air pollution should be seen as an independent risk factor for lung and heart disease, and a risk for lung cancer,’ she said.
‘From a GP point of view, just as we ask patients whether they smoke when they present with respiratory symptoms … we should now be asking, “Do you live near high pollution areas? Do you live or work near major roads?”’
Because of the risks, Associate Professor Kotsirilos believes schools and childcare centres should not be allowed near major roads, and that more investment and support is needed to encourage the use of public transport, as well as electric and hybrid cars.
She also believes more needs to be done to introduce post-combustion treatment of flue gases for coal fired power stations and encourage renewable power generation.
‘The more we walk, the more public transport we use, the better it is for our health,’ she said.
‘These are all solutions that can readily cause rapid changes to air pollution levels in Australia for the benefit of all Australians, no matter where they live.’

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Raymond Martyres   23/08/2019 9:00:19 AM

Can you get 4 Corners ABC to run a story on deaths in Australia due to pollution?
Send them the evidence and documentation
Put a poster on a bus and tram
Take it to the people!!!

Dr Philip Ian Dawson   23/08/2019 1:53:06 PM

How about following the Europeans in getting rid of Deisel? Over the last few years the WHO has pronounce Diesel exhaust fumes to be the main cause of city air pollution, to be a class 1 carcinogen, and to be the main cause of city pollution related deaths. UK is ceasing sales of new Diesel vehicles from next year and existings ones will be phased out over the next few years, many german cities do not allow diesel vehicles to enter the city limits. Perth metro buses are all LNG now with an improvement in perths air quality (thanks to the WA governments policy of reserving LGH for domestic use at international price parity, not the price gouging going on in the Eastern States). Apparently not only are other governments in Australia not interested ( they are "looking into it" according to correspondence I have had) , but neither are our medical bodies interested, including the cancer council and lung foundation. What about leading the way RACGP?

Dr Randyl Flynn (Scientist)   23/08/2019 4:44:06 PM

I support Dr H Nespolon and add that combustion produces more than just NO2 and SO2 from vehicles. Combustion fires produce hundreds of partially combusted carbon products. The Indian government was putting in hydroelectricity because of the health of people cooking with wood fires

Dr Virginia Lee Reid   23/08/2019 8:56:49 PM

SO very happy that the RACGP is contributing to and supporting these very important public health issues. Makes me proud to be a member. Would be good to know why Australians are more susceptible to particulate matter pollution ? Is it our hot conditions? If so then with global warming can we expect this to get worse?