Online Opinion: Air pollution-a silent killer we must urgently act on

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.

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

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?

In fact last week the government hosed down reports that it is planning to introduce a new fuel efficiency standard for cars.

Under the Department of Infrastructure and Regional Development proposal, all new cars sold in Australia would have to meet a target of 105gCO2/km from 335gCO2/km in 2015.

The Federal Chamber of Automotive Industries was reported in the media as saying that the proposed standard was “unrealistic and ill-considered”.

A second and intertwined problem is that of diesel vehicles. These vehicles have been promoted on the basis of greater efficiency and therefore reducing greenhouse emissions. However, it has become increasingly clear that diesel engines are more harmful as they produce far more fine particulate matter than their petrol counterparts. Plus, diesel exhaust is now confirmed to be a cause of lung cancer.

One solution is to fit expensive filters and sophisticated controls to diesel vehicles to reduce particulate emissions. But these are prone to failure or worse.

This was sensationally highlighted by the recent VW- gate scandal where cars were found to perform far worse in the real world than under test conditions and thus leading to far greater exposure to harmful emissions in our cities.

The Australian Bureau of Statistics reveals that the number of diesel cars has grown disproportionately in recent years. This comes at a time when our cities are getting more densely populated and more congested. This does not bode well for future urban health.

Australia has signed up to the Paris climate agreement and this will mean reducing carbon emissions from transport as well as other sectors of our economy. But rather than framing this as an economic cost, doctors see it as a mechanism to reduce air pollution and thereby improve public health, especially within our cities.

It is extraordinary that sections of industry would kick back against measures which would not only improve fuel economy and save money at the bowser, but reduce toxic air pollution at the same time. Equally perplexing is that Minister Frydenberg flatly denied any changes, made no attempt to give some context, and thus kicked the can down the road.

While how we do this is open to debate, as doctors we urge the government to put politics aside and put the health of the Australian community first.


George Crisp is a General Practitioner and WA Chair of Doctors for the Environment Australia.
Graeme McLeay is an anaesthetist and member of Doctors for the Environment Australia

First published in Online Opinion on 19 July 2017

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