Ongoing exposure to air pollution will cut months from the life expectancy of Sydneysiders, a new report says.
Long-time city residents will have their lives reduced by an estimated 72 days for men and 65 for women by ongoing inhalation of fine particle pollution.
Emissions from coal-fired power stations, motor vehicles and wood fire heaters have been identified as the main contributors to the toxic cocktail, which causes an estimated 520 deaths in Sydney every year, based on exposure to 2008 levels, as well as being linked to cardiovascular and asthma hospitalisations.
Sydney's air kills more people than traffic accidents. Last year the NSW road toll was 339.
The health risk assessment of air pollution in Australia report was released on Thursday by the National Environment Protection Council as part of its work developing mandatory national standards for fine particle emissions.
Barry Buffier, NSW Environment Protection Authority chairman and chief executive, said the effects of air pollution on human health were significant. He said the impact statement has been developed with all states and territories and was supported by a large body of scientific evidence and robust analysis.
For the past 15 years Sydney's Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation has measured the city's air quality and surrounds with a particular focus on the tiny aerosols that circulate but cannot be seen.
David Cohen, the head of ANSTO's aerosol-sampling program, said the quality of Sydney’s air had improved markedly from 30 years ago but that improvement had stablised since 2008. Professor Cohen said the ongoing reliance on coal-fired power generation and population growth tied to increasing vehicle usage threatened to reverse hard-won improvements.
The concentration of these particles varies during the seasons, but, as a whole, fine particle pollution has serious health implications. A study published in the Environmental Research Letters journal found that 2.1 million people died prematurely each year because of fine particle pollution, particles less than 2.5 micrometres in diameter. Most deaths were from cardiopulmonary disease and a smaller percentage from lung cancer.
Professor Cohen said the city's pollution could be halved if emissions from coal-fired power stations, wood fires and diesel vehicles were turned off immediately "if we had a magic switch". ''Between 50 and 60 per cent of the airborne sulphate in the Sydney basin is generated by the 25 million tonnes of coal burnt in the eight major power stations in NSW,'' Professor Cohen said.
NSW Chief Medical Officer Kerry Chant has advocated her support for banning and phasing out solid fuel heaters in built-up urban areas as an option to control wood smoke.
The health risk assessment report, a collaboration between the University of Sydney, Southern Cross University, the University of Western Sydney and University of Wollongong, found if the amount of fine particle pollution was reduced by up to 17 per cent the impacts would be immediate. In the first year of reduced exposure, there would be 140 fewer deaths in Sydney, they estimated.
Researchers Professor Geoff Morgan, Dr Richard Broome and Professor Bin Jalaludin acknowledged "the impacts of air pollution on health cannot be directly counted, and must be evaluated from estimates of health risk based on scientific research".
Asthma Foundation NSW chief executive Michele Goldman said the move towards mandatory air quality standards was overdue and focused attention on the need to upgrade air quality monitoring.
“A recent report from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) shows Australia has failed to halt the dangerous rise in air pollution," Ms Goldman said. “These new standards will help us focus on the major sources of pollution, motor vehicles, wood burning stoves and power stations and various industrial activities and how to limit pollution from those sources.”
“This also presents an opportunity to overhaul our air quality monitoring systems. According to the EPA’s own listing there are only six stations capable of monitoring PM2.5 in the whole Sydney region, only two of those located in the main metropolitan concentration with none in the CBD. The foundation questions the EPA’s claim that the current arrangement will be sufficient to provide a true snapshot of Sydney’s air pollution.”