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20 Sep 2013

This AMA Speech has just been issued...





Air quality – a major public health issue

I would like to acknowledge and pay respect to the traditional owners of the land on which we meet.

It is my great pleasure to represent the AMA at this forum.

It is also a wonderful opportunity to share a platform with renowned international authorities, Professor Ross Anderson and Professor Bert Brunekreef, and local health policy guru, Professor Andrew Wilson.

Air pollution has significant implications for human health and, as such, has serious implications for the medical profession.  In recent times, the AMA has been called more and more often to comment on health issues around climate change, air pollution, coal mining, and non-conventional gas mining such as coal seam gas.

People and communities are being affected.  It is a growing public health issue.  It is imperative that government policies, regulations and standards are effective and enforced to protect the health of communities.

Since Australia introduced national air quality standards in 1998, some improvements have been made in reducing the levels of certain air pollutants in urban areas.

However, major challenges remain, including gaps and shortcomings in current air quality policies and standards in Australia, and a failure to keep pace with scientific evidence on the health effects of fine and ultrafine particles.

These gaps and shortcomings leave communities vulnerable to the effects of air pollution.  The AMA has voiced concerns around three key aspects of current air quality management.

The first is the air quality standards themselves, which include the levels that are currently prescribed and the range of pollutants that are included in the standards.  The second relates to effectiveness of current air monitoring.  The third aspect concerns the enforcement of standards.

These concerns were reinforced by the recent Federal Parliamentary Inquiry into the Health Effects of Air Quality, which recommended a series of measures to improve air quality standards, monitoring and enforcement.

The shared views of the AMA and the Inquiry echo a comprehensive review of Australia’s Air Quality Management Framework that was undertaken in 2011.

Governments must act on these reviews and recommendations.

Everyone is affected by the quality of the air that we breathe.  Ensuring clean and safe air is vital in maintaining the health of our communities.

There is considerable evidence documenting the substantial health impacts of air pollution, which range from acute and chronic effects, reproductive and neuro-cognitive defects, through to premature mortality.  There is strong evidence for the significant health effects of particulate matter.

The World Health Organisation’s most recent appraisal of scientific evidence indicated that these effects are even more pronounced than was previously thought.  This body of evidence demonstrates the importance of government involvement in establishing and enforcing air quality standards that protect human health.

Individuals cannot readily control the extent to which they are exposed to harmful air-borne pollutants in the communities in which they live and work.

As an accumulating body of evidence refines our understanding of the health effects of air pollutants, various developments have called into question the effectiveness of current air quality management in Australia.

There is an increasing reliance on road transport.  And there has been an expansion of mining and other industries that produce hazardous air pollutants.

Another critical element in the mix is a changing and increasingly variable climate.  With climate change, there is a likely increase in the severity and frequency of bushfires and droughts and an increase in the levels of particulate matter in urban and regional areas.

Photochemical smog – which affects all Australian cities – is also influenced by air temperature.

Warmer weather and more frequent extreme heat events are likely to exacerbate the incidence and severity of photochemical smog events, as well as increasing the concentration of allergens in the air.

Such effects coincide with other stressors that affect human health, such as heat stress.

It is therefore very likely that these combined effects will have significant adverse effects on the morbidity and mortality of the Australian population.

Current air quality standards in Australia lag behind international standards.  They have failed to keep pace with scientific evidence.

Insufficient monitoring and poor compliance mechanisms, fragmentation between different sectors and tiers of government, and the lack of exposure targets are but some of the areas requiring review and reform.

Urgent action is needed as the effects of climate change and extreme weather on air quality become increasingly apparent.

The central mechanism for regulating urban air quality in Australia is the National Environmental and Protection Measure for Ambient Air Quality (NEPM).

This measure regulates six of the major air pollutants - carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, ozone, sulphur dioxide, lead, and particulates - and it sets air quality standards that are legally binding on each level of government.

Since Australia introduced the NEPM in 1998, some improvements have been made in reducing the levels of certain air pollutants in urban areas.

However, major challenges remain.  These include gaps and shortcomings in current air quality policies and standards in Australia, and a failure to keep pace with scientific evidence on the health effects of fine and ultrafine particles.

Occupational and workplace standards for hazardous air pollution are inconsistent and poorly enforced.  Major sources of hazardous air pollutants are not currently regulated, as illustrated by the lack of standards for off-road diesel engines, for example.

The current monitoring network needs to be strengthened and expanded to measure the exposure of vulnerable groups and populations living in close proximity to major source of air pollution, such as coal-fired power stations or major roadways.

More effective enforcements mechanisms are also required to ensure standards are met. 

The overall goal of air quality management should be to minimise exposure to air pollution.

The AMA recognises that compliance with air quality standards alone is not enough to protect public health.

There is no known safe level of exposure to air pollutants, such as ozone or particulates, and exposure to levels below the current standard poses risks to human health.

The health impacts of air pollution need to be more effectively factored into planning and development decisions.

Local communities affected by air pollution are rising up in protest at what is happening to their lifestyle, their livelihood, and their health.  These local communities have a growing and meaningful voice.

The AMA and other health groups are adding public health evidence to that voice.

Governments and business will have to start listening and acting – and soon.

19 September 2013


CONTACT:                        John Flannery                           02 6270 5477 / 0419 494 761

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Published: 20 Sep 2013