GP warns of hidden danger in the air

Matt Woodley

22/03/2019 2:25:13 PM

A Melbourne doctor wants changes to how we commute and plan cities, with evidence mounting that there is no ‘safe’ level of air pollution.

Cars in traffic
Associate Professor Vicki Kotsirilos has said there is no ‘safe’ level of air pollution for people living near freeways.

Associate Professor Vicki Kotsirilos, founding Chair of the RACGP Specific Interests Integrative Medicine network, presented her case recently to Victoria’s Major Road Projects Authority after being asked to give a lecture on the potential health impacts of a proposed freeway in Melbourne.
According to Associate Professor Kotsirilos, at least 3000 annual deaths can be attributed to urban air pollution, with children and older people most at risk.
While current national air quality standards limit the amount of air pollutants, Associate Professor Kotsirilos told newsGP they may not be effective at preventing major health concerns.
‘We’re all familiar that vehicle-related air pollution increases the risk of health concerns … but what surprised me from the literature I accessed was that there’s actually no safe level of air pollution,’ she said.
In particular, particle matter smaller than 2.5 microns (PM 2.5) found in vehicle emissions carry harmful chemicals and have been found to have devastating health impacts in the right conditions.
‘As we breathe them in they go deeper into the lungs and become absorbed into our lymphatic system and blood stream, and also the rest of the body, such as the tissues and organs, and cause other effects,’ Associate Professor Kotsirilos said.
‘We can’t see them, they’re very tiny particles … but they cause or are associated with increased mortality, premature death and even cardiac arrest.’
Studies produced in Australia and internationally have variously linked PM 2.5 with lung cancer, particularly for people living within 100 m of a major road; cardiac arrest; low birth weight; and asthma and reduced lung function in children.
Prenatal exposure to PM 2.5 and exposure during the third trimester of pregnancy has also been associated with an increased risk of autism spectrum disorder.
Weather patterns, such as the direction of the wind, can help disperse urban air pollution, but houses within 50 metres of congested roads were still found to have much higher levels of pollutants over the long term than houses further away.
With Australia’s population conservatively predicted to reach 30 million by 2033, Associate Professor Kotsirilos believes the Government needs to follow the example of several European countries and take steps to limit the number of high-emission vehicles on our roads.
‘These are first-world countries, like Australia, that are experiencing the same level of air pollution as us,’ she said.
‘Solutions include reducing overall vehicle emissions by supporting the electric car industry … [and] diverting money away from freeways and highways across to public transport system.
‘These solutions are not new. The problem is they’re often not implemented.’
In the short term, Associate Professor Kotsirilos suggests that patients with concerns, or who are sensitive to air pollution, should be advised to exercise in green or open areas, plant heavy foliage trees near their house, and potentially invest in National Asthma Council-recommended air purifiers.
‘It’s really something as GPs we need to be aware of,’ she said.
‘I’m hoping by creating greater community awareness and engaging in respectful dialogue with the government we can start planning to create sustainable, cleaner cities.’

air pollution urban density vehicle emissions

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