air pollution NSW
Bayswater coal-fired power station, Muswellbrook NSW. (Image: AAP/Dan Himbrechts)

If you’re an asthmatic like me you probably find working in Sydney or Melbourne a struggle these days — and it’s not just because of the exhausting commute. Air pollution is getting seriously worse in our major cities and developing areas.

This is the word from the medical NGO Doctors for the Environment Australia (DEA), which warns that Australia’s cities have increasingly dangerous levels of air pollution. Some members of DEA are also concerned about the health effects of the new western Sydney airport, warning of increased pollution in the Sydney basin that stretches to the Blue Mountains.

Western Sydney lies in a low-level basin that traps air pollution and hazardous particles that can cause respiratory issues, strokes and heart disease. Doctors claim the poor air quality is causing “a perfect storm” for people with even mild breathing problems.

“The deterioration of air quality in NSW is a cause for public concern and requires a strong regulatory response from the state government,” said Dr Ben Ewald of the DEA.

The pollution problem

The bulk of Australia’s fine particle pollution is from coal-fired power stations, but big engineering projects like airports and new highways are worrying doctors all the same, Ewald explains. Environmental Justice Australia says that more than 3000 Australians die prematurely from exposure to air pollution each year. Industry and big engineering projects make up at least 39% of fine particle air pollution in Sydney not counting diesel vehicle pollution.

This is a growing concern around the world, too. In London, a family has been granted permission from the High Court for a new inquest into the cause of the death of their daughter, Ella Kissi-Debrah in 2013. The family want air pollution listed as the cause of death (from asthma brought on by exposure to pollution from living near a busy road).

This situation is compounded by climate change. New South Wales’ Office for the Environment and Heritage (OEH) states the drought has played a part in the recent jump in pollution in NSW, partly due to increasing forest fires. According to the OEH, all monitoring stations for air pollution west of Strathfield in Sydney topped the national standard for ozone levels last year of eight parts per hundred million on more than one day. This was double the ozone levels measured in the same suburbs west of Strathfield in 2015.

The OEH also stated that in 2018 the entire state’s air quality was impacted by increased dust from drought-affected areas and smoke from wildfires and hazard-reduction burns.

The OEH has also warned that western Sydney is already particularly at risk from the added impact of high ozone levels, particularly during hot summers. Ground-level ozone is a pollutant when at high levels and causes smog, largely as the result of burning fossils fuels. It is created when the sun reacts with other pollutants in the air.

According to the government’s own environmental impact statement (EIS) on the airport from 2016:

Stage One development would result in increase of emissions of nitrogen dioxide, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide and air toxins … predicted ozone concentrations were predicted to exceed the relevant air quality criteria.

According to Ewald, it is the fine particles of ozone and nitrogen dioxide that are particularly hazardous to people with asthma. Airplane exhaust, like car exhaust contains a variety of pollutants including sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides.

What can be done?

Brad Smith from the Nature Conservation Council of NSW (NCC) adds, “Most people don’t know that air pollution is a dangerous problem in NSW”. 

Groups like the NCC are urging the state government to address the poor air quality issues. They are focusing on coal mines in particular. The NCC will meet with the NSW environment minister this month to talk about a proposed review of standards of pollution — in particular, from coal-fired power stations. They are asking for it to be “compulsory for all coal burning power stations to install the most up-to-date technology to ensure emissions meet global standards”.

DEA agrees, suggesting Australia should meet standards such as in North America and Europe. They want sulfur dioxide scrubbers to be mandatory on coal power station chimneys and for fuel standards to be improved for Australia’s cars. Better and more fuel efficient cars can then be imported or manufactured.

DEA says that pollution in NSW is at its worst near coal-fired power stations on the central coast, as well as Lithgow, Muswellbrook and Liverpool.

In October 2016, the NSW government, through the Environment Protection Authority, launched a community consultation process to develop a clean air plan to be released in 2017. Consultation included a discussion paper Clean Air for NSW.

The problem is that consultation never led to a finalised policy, according to DEA.

But it’s not just air pollution that worries experts. It’s the pollution of our water supply and the safety of the water we drink from big engineering projects like the new airport. Ross Coster from the Blue Mountains Conservation Society, which has been studying the impacts of the airport, says exhausts from planes flying over the Blue Mountains will land in the catchment that accounts for 80% of Sydney’s drinking water

Harry Burkitt from the NGO the Colong Foundation campaigns for solutions to water pollution and over-development. He wants the local and federal governments to work more closely with environment groups and renewable energy providers to reduce pollution levels overall.

“Instead of building engineering projects like dams to control the effects of climate change like flooding after drought, we need a comprehensive state and federal government policy to reduce carbon emissions and pollution in the first place,” he said.

“The good part is that we have the technology to reduce pollution, we just need to use it.”

Peter Fray

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