Call to red light our transport-related air pollution

Public health

By Mardi Chapman

14 Nov 2023

All levels of Australian governments should adopt a health-in-all-policies approach when making decisions or developing policies that impact population exposure to air pollution caused by road transport emissions.

A report from the Environmental Defenders Office, Toxic Transport: How Our Pollution Laws Are Failing to Protect Our Health [link here], has called for recognition that the solution to air pollution goes well beyond monitoring ambient air quality and diesel vehicle emissions.

Instead, a health-in-all-policies approach might lead to better local planning decisions which would situate childcare centres away from major roads and the attendant risk of exposure to traffic pollution.

Better planning could also create low emission zones where there is high pedestrian activity, idling free zones outside schools and hospitals, and safer active transport routes.

The Toxic Transport report said pollution from transport is responsible for approximately 11,000 deaths annually in Australia – “… almost 10 times higher than the 1,194 people killed in road crash accidents in 2022.”

It has made a number of recommendations to mitigate exposure to harmful transport pollution, including to:

  • revise ambient air pollution threshold targets so they are at least consistent with WHO Air Quality Guidelines and subject to continuous improvement towards zero
  • establish population exposure threshold targets for air pollutants and population exposure reduction targets
  • set new monitoring standards for air pollutants; significantly expand the number of air monitoring stations, and enable real-time, public access to the data
  • implement Australian fuel efficiency standards for petrol and diesel by no later than 1 July 2024
  • legislate an electrification target of all new vehicles sold by 2035 to be electric or zero emissions, covering private passenger and heavy vehicles including public buses.
  • implement a ‘mode shift’ away from private vehicles to active and public transport.

The Toxic Transport report said transport pollution encompasses particulate matter and gases such as nitrogen dioxide and carbon monoxide from tail-pipe emissions as well as toxic particulates from other sources such as tyres and brake-pads.

It said children in utero, children, older people, individuals with underlying health conditions, and “overburdened communities” including people experiencing financial disadvantage will likely be at greater risk of harm from transport pollution.

As previously reported in the limbic, air pollution has been linked to a wide range of health outcomes from asthma exacerbations in children [link here] to COVID severity [link here] and lung cancer risk in adults [link here].

TSANZ leadership

TSANZ board member Professor Hubertus Jersmann told the limbic that Australia is lagging behind other countries on several fronts including fuel emission standards for vehicles.

“These standards effectively threaten vehicle manufactures with penalties if the produced fleet of vehicles exceeds a limit of emissions, which is set to become progressively lower,” he said.

“The absence of these standards mean the Australia has become a dumping ground for high emission vehicles, which are no longer sellable in jurisdictions with fuel emission standards like the European Union and the USA.”

“Likewise, the WHO recently updated their air quality standards whereas Australia left ours unchanged.”

For example, WHO lowered the maximum daily mean concentrations of PM2.5 to 15 ug/m3 and annual mean to 5 µg/m3 while Australia’s targets still sit at 25 ug/m3 and 8 µg/m3, respectively.

Professor Jersmann, from the Royal Adelaide Hospital and University of Adelaide, said about 8% of all Australians have asthma and about 5% of people aged over 40 have COPD.

“Together, these are ~3,500,000 people. Air pollution from industry or traffic and especially acutely and intensely during bush fires are likely to put them at risk of exacerbations. This means their health status deteriorates, they need more and stronger medications, oftentimes cortisone tablets and the visits to primary care or emergency units increases.”

“What is often underappreciated is the effect of air pollution on young children and the unborn babies of pregnant women. Poor air quality near main roads but also from “events” such as during the Hazelwood coal seam fire or prolonged bushfires like in 2019/2020, result in less lung growth in these children and a higher incidence of chronic bronchitis and asthma.”

The Toxic Transport report notes that air pollution from transport is both a major contributor to climate change and that its effects will be exacerbated by dust and smoke associated with more droughts and bushfires due to climate change.

In December 2019, TSANZ joined other national and international health organisations in declaring climate change a medical emergency.

The TSANZ endorsed the WHO Air Quality Guidelines 2021 [link here] and as a member of the Climate and Health Alliance, is currently supporting the Healthy Transport Campaign [link here] calling on Federal Transport Minister Catherine King to decarbonise transport.

On other related issues, Professor Jersmann said TSANZ was preparing outdoor and indoor air pollution position papers and supports efforts to curtail indoor gas use due its detrimental impact on lungs and in particular in patients who already have lung disease. 

“This is a classic example of “co-benefit”- doing away with gas is healthier and cheaper, but also better for the environment,” he said.

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