Children living or attending schools close to major roads are exposed to more hazardous air pollution, warn health experts who are calling for sweeping laws to control vehicular emissions and so improve air quality.
In a submission to the Better Fuel for Cleaner Air discussion paper, medical group Doctors for the Environment Australia, which is supported by a Nobel laureate, recipients of the Australia of the Year award and deans from leading medical colleges, recommended “strong” laws to improve the quality of fuel and vehicles to bring it in line with other developed countries. These include:
DEA spokesperson and paediatrician Dr Karen Kiang says, “Australia’s ranking in fuel standards is atrocious- we come 63 out of 64 OECD countries, ahead of Mexico only, which clearly shows that self-regulation of the fuel and car industries is not working, and that we need the government to step in.”
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. Liverpool, Rozelle and Earlwood in Sydney experience poor air quality frequently, as does Melbourne’s CBD.
The cost of premature deaths due to outdoor air pollution in Australia in 2010 is estimated to be up to $7.8 billion. Illness from reduced lung function, heart disease, stroke, respiratory illnesses and lung cancer would add to the tax burden.
Children are especially susceptible to asthma and wheeze because of their relatively small airways and they breathe more air per body weight than adults. Those born of families living close to highways were small for gestational age and had low birth weight.
Diesel vehicles which now make up the fastest growing fuel type in Australia, are a major contributor of air pollution. Diesel is now classified as a Class 1 carcinogen, and contains more particulates and nitrox compounds than those from petrol.
The level of sulfur in petrol in Australia, which is much higher than comparable economies, is also a major contributor. The current 50-150ppm should be lowered to 10ppm from 50 to 150ppm. Sulfur dioxide is a respiratory irritant and contributes particularly to child breathing difficulties.
“Although vehicle standards are not part of the discussion paper, DEA has urged the government to adopt European standards, and virtually all of the developed world by 2020, to ensure greater health protection for Australians, especially our young people,” says Dr Kiang.
“DEA also highlighted that vehicular transport in Australia contributes to 17% of our nation’s greenhouse gases.
“As Australia is vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, as we have witnessed with coral bleaching, record heat waves, bushfires and uncertain farm productivity, it makes sense that we ensure our vehicles are as efficient as possible.”
The discussion paper comes as existing legislation is set to “sunset” in 2019.
Dr Karen Kiang, paediatrician, 0402 533 965
Dr David Shearman, 0481 154 805