About 3,000 Australians die prematurely each year from outdoor air pollution, and our cars are a major component of that pollution, particularly in traffic congested areas.
Suburbs in Sydney and Melbourne and to a lesser extent other capital cities frequently do not meet air quality standards, and show a deterioration in air quality in recent years.
This pollution is likely to get worse as population increases and along with it congestion on our roads.
Cars emit a toxic mix of carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, sulphur dioxide, ground level ozone, and particulate matter, some of it visible as smog or haze.
None of it is good for you. There is growing evidence that such pollution harms our health from the womb to the grave.
Respected medical journals are linking air pollution to underweight newborns, asthma and poor lung development in children, heart disease, stroke, and asthma and lung cancer in later life and even Alzheimer’s disease in elderly people living close to traffic corridors.
The California Children’s Health study followed children over a 10- year period. Children living or going to school close to traffic pollution experienced more respiratory disease such as asthma and bronchitis, and on days when high concentrations of ozone were present, absences from school. In adulthood, previously highly exposed children were found to have reduced lung function.
Children are especially susceptible to asthma and wheeze because of their relatively small airways and they breathe more air per body weight than adults.
Diesel vehicles are popular – I bought one some years ago – and they are the fastest growing fuel type in Australia. I would suspect that many consumers are unaware as I was when I bought my car that diesel is a major contributor of air pollution.
Diesel contains more particulates and nitrox compounds than those from petrol. The International Agency for Research on Cancer has declared diesel emissions carcinogenic.
Despite the evidence of harm, tougher vehicle emission standards which apply in other developed countries are still waiting to be introduced into Australia. Testing overseas has shown that even when cars have particulate filters to meet these higher standards, under real world stop-start driving conditions, diesel emissions remain a problem.
Paris, Madrid, Mexico City, and Athens are planning to ban diesel cars from entering the city, and there is a push to do the same in parts of the United Kingdom.
But diesel is not the only culprit fouling the air we breathe. The level of sulfur in petrol in Australia is making our fuel some of the dirtiest in the world, the current 50-150 parts per million is much higher than comparable economies, and it needs to be lowered to 10ppm.
Sulfur dioxide is a respiratory irritant and contributes particularly to child breathing difficulties.
Australia needs to clean up its act.
A Ministerial Forum on Vehicle Emissions was established in October 2015 to coordinate a whole-of-government approach to addressing emissions from motor vehicles but the word health does not appear in their terms of reference and the Health Minister is not part of the forum.
Yet the World Health Organisation has identified outdoor air pollution as a major environmental health hazard.
The Forum on emissions has been considering vehicle emissions in three ways: improved vehicle efficiency standards which not only give better kilometres per litre but reduce greenhouse gases per litre; more stringent vehicle emission standards which reduce tailpipe emissions of harmful pollutants; and, in the latest round, fuel standards, which enable both of those objectives.
There is a win-win opportunity here to save lives through better air quality, reduce greenhouse emissions and, at the same time, gain productivity in improved mileage and reduced costs to transport.
Much more can be done by both government and individuals to give us air fit to breathe.
In a recent submission to the Ministerial Forum, medical group Doctors for the Environment Australia made a number of recommendations: higher vehicle emissions standards on all new cars in line with the best standards applying overseas; cleaner fuel standards for all fuel types; tax incentives to favour petrol cars over diesel; and tax incentives favouring hybrid and electric cars.
Better public transport, more walking paths and bike lanes, car sharing, urban planning and public warnings about air quality can all help to reduce the health burden. Idling of vehicles while stationary is banned in some overseas jurisdictions and turning off the engine while waiting is something simple everyone can do.
I for one will, among other things, ensure that my next car will be electric or hybrid!
Graeme McLeay is an anaesthetist and member of Doctors for the Environment Australia.
First published on Gizmodo on 20 March 2017