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Air pollution: a silent killer we must urgently act on

By George Crisp and Graeme McLeay - posted Wednesday, 19 July 2017


Media reports last week that the government planned to introduce strict new fuel and vehicle efficiency standards starting in 2022, characterised as a "carbon tax on cars", brought an emphatic denial from Minister for the Environment and Energy Josh Frydenberg.

The proposed changes being considered by the Ministerial Forum on Vehicle Emissions would have two aims; firstly to improve fuel efficiency which would help keep Australia's high per capita greenhouse gas emissions down and secondly would reduce the harmful and growing air pollution in our cities.

The second of these is a critical health aspect of this debate. It would be a tragedy indeed if measures to curb damaging vehicle air pollution were caught in the ongoing political crossfire over actions to limit carbon emissions.

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It may come as a bit of a surprise in the era of high tech, personalized medicine, but one of the most significant health discoveries in the last few decades which medical group Doctors for the Environment Australia has sought to highlight has been how air pollution even at low levels can have serious consequences for our health.

Fine airborne particles, less than 1/20th the width of a human hair (PM2.5), are the major culprits. These particles are small enough to bypass our body's natural defence mechanisms and get deep into our lungs causing inflammation in our blood vessels and damage to internal organs, causing heart attacks, strokes, asthma and lung cancer. Studies have also linked PM2.5 to a wide range of other conditions including kidney disease, preterm births, dementia, depression and diabetes.

Ambient air pollution is thought to contribute to around 3000 deaths in Australia annually and it is estimated that motor vehicle emissions account for around half of these. This is a far greater number than the toll from road traffic accidents.

Children are a vulnerable group who suffer disproportionately from the effects of air pollution. Asthma rates are increased in children who live near busy roads. A Californian study also reported more school absences and permanent reductions in lung function.

Emergency presentations related to asthma have been shown to increase following higher pollution days even in cities with relatively good air quality like Perth.

As well as the premature loss of life, the lost productivity, healthcare and welfare from air pollution is estimated by the OECD to cost Australians $5.8 billion per year (2014) almost a doubling in a decade

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Compared to other OECD countries Australia has very poor vehicle emission and fuel standards. We lag behind Europe and the United States, particularly California, and that gap appears set to grow. Many European nations, as well as individual cities, have increased their ambition to limit and restrict polluting vehicles in coming years and promote electric vehicles, whereas we are making little progress.

The Ministerial Forum on Vehicle Emissions standards was established in 2015. The Discussion Paper, Better fuel for Cleaner Air was released by the Department of Environment and Energy late last year and acknowledges "there are proven links between pollutants found in vehicle emissions and a range of human health problems".

But the health impacts were not raised in the media or by the Minister. The Forum does not appear to have made any determination at this stage and the government has denied that any decisions have been taken. Why then were these changes flagged to industry ahead of time?

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About the Authors

Dr George Crisp is a Perth GP. He is a member of Doctors for the Environment.

Dr Graeme McLeay is an Adelaide anaesthetist, a grandfather and a member of Doctors for the Environment Australia.

Other articles by these Authors

All articles by George Crisp
All articles by Graeme McLeay

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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