COMMENT: Air pollution is now the invisible killer

Air quality has a direct effect on our health and indeed our life span. Doctors for the Environment Australia recently wrote to the NSW Minister for the Environment Mark Speakman, highlighting that air pollution in parts of NSW is so bad that it is equivalent to smoking a cigarette a day. 

NSW will be leading the charge on setting particle air pollution laws at the meeting of Environment Ministers from across the country to be held later this month. Minister Speakman must pay heed and propose tougher standards.

Air pollution is now an invisible killer. Poor air quality is costing us our lives, health and money. It is responsible for 3000 Australians’ deaths and costs more than $5 billion every year. Some of the worst culprits include wood fire heaters which produce the majority of Sydney’s fine particle pollution during winter and deaths linked to pollution from transport have increased almost 70 per cent since 2005. Coal, though, is the leading cause of particle pollution in Australia.

Exposure to both finer PM2.5 (particulate matter 2.5 micrometres or less in diameter) and coarser PM10 (particulate matter 10 micrometres or less in diameter)  is increasingly being associated with adverse health impacts, including respiratory and heart conditions. In the last five years PM2.5 emissions from the coal industry have increased by 52 per cent and PM10 particle pollution has more than doubled. In 2013-14 the National Pollutant Inventory estimated that the coal industry was responsible for 920 million kilograms of coarse particle pollution. In NSW, the coal mining Hunter region is a hotspot of such pollution and the community bears an unacceptable burden of health related impacts.

SICK: Coal is a leading cause of particle pollution. The Baird government decided to rule out covering coal wagons even if the NSW Chief Scientist recommended it.

SICK: Coal is a leading cause of particle pollution. The Baird government decided to rule out covering coal wagons even if the NSW Chief Scientist recommended it.

Australian air quality standards are governed by the Ambient Air Quality National Environmental Protection Measure (NEPM).  According to Environmental Justice Australia (EJA) these standards are not stringent enough and an “ineffective way of dealing with air pollution as they have failed to keep up with the science, technology and needs of the community”. 

The State Environment Ministers meeting will consider revised standards for PM10 as well as a National Clean Air Agreement.  A range of options for these standards has already been canvassed by NSW, but the Minerals Council of Australia is against their adoption, refusing to support any of the proposed more stringent provisions. The question now is whether NSW Government will buckle under the coal lobby’s pressure or lead on tougher standards that protect people and the environment? Communities are sceptical because of the Baird government’s decision to rule out covering coal wagons even if the NSW Chief Scientist recommended it.

Earlier this year, during Budget Estimates hearings, the Environment  Minister admitted that particulate pollution was undeniably detrimental to human health, but he also stated “what we need to balance, on the other hand, is the effect that unduly restrictive emissions limits might have on industry because poverty is a health hazard as well. If restrictions are too stringent then industries may close and put people out of work and that is a health hazard as well, so it is a question of balance”.

Minister, it’s time the balance swung from mining company profits to the protection of the people of our state. Stricter emissions standards will save lives and money.

Dr Mehreen Faruqi is a NSW MP and the Greens NSW Environment Spokesperson and a civil and environmental engineer