The effects of air pollution on Australians

Michael_van_der_Vlies_New_Energy_SolarMichael van der Vlies27 June 2019
  • The effects of air pollution have been well established
  • Air quality standards in Australia are thought to have lagged internationally
  • The Hunter Valley produces millions of tonnes of coal each year.

The World Health Organization calls air pollution the “world’s single biggest environmental health risk”,1 but despite increasing awareness of the effects of air pollution, regulation is thought to be falling behind2 – particularly in Australia.

Commentators argue that Australian air pollution is inadequately regulated, monitored and enforced and that approximately 3,000 premature deaths each year are linked to urban air pollution.3 Although the air quality in Australia is considered relatively good,4 there is a consensus that there is no “safe” level of exposure to a number of pollutants, as harmful effects result from exposure at levels even below current air quality standards.5

According to the Australian Medical Association (AMA), air quality standards in Australia have lagged behind international standards and have failed to keep pace with scientific evidence.6 Areas that the AMA has said require review and reform include insufficient monitoring and poor compliance mechanisms, fragmentation between different sectors and tiers of government, and a lack of exposure targets.7

"In the Hunter Valley, electricity generation produced 96,028 tonnes of particulate matter, while NSW in its entirety produced 113,000 tonnes over the same period..."

Causes of air pollution

The pollution that is most damaging to human health is particulate matter (PM) – that is, tiny particles, hundreds of times narrower than a single human hair, that can make their way into the organs of living creatures.8 In Australia, the number one cause of pollution is the burning of fossil fuels for transport and industrial processes.9 The health implications of exposure to PM are well established. PM arising from industry and vehicle emissions, mining activity, wood-burning, cigarette smoke, coal dust and coal-burning, for example, can cause upper respiratory tract infections, decreased lung function, adverse birth and neurodevelopment outcomes, and the exacerbation of, and increased mortality from, cardiorespiratory diseases.10

Further, a form of environmental injustice is emerging as the circumstances of communities closest to industrial pollution sites are exacerbated by social and economic disadvantage.11 For example, in coal mining areas such as the Hunter Valley in New South Wales – where the larger part of the state’s raw coal production of approximately 246 million tonnes is derived12 and where the total volume of coal consumed in local coal-fired power stations each year is approximately 19 million tonnes – causes of air pollution specifically include the explosive blasting of rocks covering coal seams (which can also produce toxic gases hazardous to health), wind erosion of large areas of “overburden” (that is, mining waste), unpaved roads around sites, and the use of dragline excavators.13 Many of the mines and power stations in this region are close to populated areas and towns and these activities have been identified as contributing to declining air quality from coal dust and other air emissions, exposure to toxic gases from explosive blast plumes, potential water contamination, and noise and light pollution.14 There are also concerns about the damage to fragile or threatened natural ecosystems and the general health risks associated with global warming.15

The cost of pollution

Once renowned for its clean air, the Hunter Valley was identified in 2014 as an air pollution “hotspot”.16 The dominant source of particle emissions across this region was found to be coal mining.17 With more than 30 coal mining operation sites across the Hunter, including 22 open cut and 17 underground mines, 145 million tonnes of coal per annum is produced in the region.18 In 2012/13 alone, coal mining and electricity generation produced 96,028 tonnes of PM, while New South Wales in its entirety produced 113,000 tonnes over the same period.19 The annual cost of health damages from PM exposure in the Hunter towns of Singleton and Muswellbrook – located in close proximity to major coal mines and power stations – is estimated to be $47 million and $18 million respectively.20

Internationally, a study from MIT reported that if China followed through with its international pledge to reduce emissions, each one of its provinces would experience benefits in terms of air quality and human health, along with associated monetary savings, that could offset the total cost of implementing the policy.21 Findings suggest that even a 4% reduction per year in carbon emissions could amount to an estimated $339 billion in health savings in China in 2030.22 Similar findings have also been reported in the United States. In Australia, however, experts are of the view that the current climate policy ignores billions of dollars in potential health savings.23 According to the University of Sydney, reducing fossil fuel combustion could not only offer immediate and additional health “co-benefits” that accompany longer-term benefits for the environment, but could also deliver much-needed savings to the country’s bottom line i.e. an estimated $5.9 billion that Australia spends on health problems each year due to the energy and transport sectors alone.24

As discussed in previous insights, a transition to renewable energy is now well underway. New Energy Solar (NEW) believes that a considered and gradual approach to lowering emissions across various sectors in Australia could help to reduce pollution and improve the health of both the environment and mankind – particularly for those in communities in close proximity to industrial and mining sites. In the meantime, the team remains focused on effectively identifying solar-powered opportunities that could contribute to a reduction of carbon dioxide emissions – both in Australia and in the United States, where NEW is largely invested.

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