The Upper Hunter recorded the worst air quality in the state during 2017, a study has found.
The study, published in the Journal of Rural Health, examined regional differences in air pollution levels across urban and rural areas.
The research team of environment and health researchers from the universities of Sydney, Newcastle and Indiana was particularly interested in testing air pollution levels for urban areas, especially Sydney, compared to rural areas in the Upper Hunter, which had a smaller population but extensive coal mining and burning activities.
The research team analysed pollution data from the 46 government accredited air quality monitoring stations around the state.
Pollutants analysed included fine and coarse particulate matter (PM2.5 and PM10), sulfur dioxide, nitric oxide, nitrogen dioxide, and oxides of nitrogen.
"Without adjustment, daily mean pollutant levels were significantly highest in the Lower and Upper Hunter regions, and they were significantly higher than the metropolitan regions of Sydney or Illawarra on all five pollutants. The Upper Hunter area was significantly higher than every other region for PM2.5, nitric oxide (NO), nitrogen dioxide (NO2), and NOx (sum of NO and NO2)," the study found.
"With adjustment for weather variables, the results were essentially unchanged. Upper and Lower Hunter areas consistently had significantly higher levels of all pollutants after controlling for weather conditions."
Daily mean PM2.5 was 8.64 micrograms per cubic metre in the rural Upper Hunter, compared to 7.23 micrograms per cubic metre in metropolitan Sydney.
The report authors said the findings highlighted the need for stronger government policies governing mine approvals and power station emissions in rural regions.
"For many years, Upper Hunter communities have expressed concerns about the perceived cumulative impact of coal industry expansion on air quality and residents’ health," the report authors said.
"These perceptions are validated by the region-wide monitor data reported in this study. Priority should be given to consideration of cumulative impacts in approval criteria for new mines and mine expansion. Moreover, dangerous coal-powered generator emissions identify Upper Hunter communities as facing the greatest potential health harm and add weight to calls for upgrading pollution control to capture primary PM2.5 in addition to post combustion capture of SO2 and NOx"