Air pollution—what’s the situation?
Compared to many countries around the world, Australia has a very high standard of air quality. Despite this, approximately 5000 people die each year due to diseases associated with exposure to air pollution in our country.
Our growing population, increased urbanisation, higher demands on transport (particularly air transport), energy consumption and use of wood-burning heaters all contribute to higher levels of air pollution. Climate change is closely linked with air pollution as the burning of fossil fuels is a major contributor to both. Climate change is also predicted to affect air quality into the future. If emissions are not reduced, data modelling indicates that there will be significant increases in summer smog (ozone) after 2030, while an increase in the frequency of droughts would lead to a rise in particle air pollution as a result of more bushfires and wind-blown dust storms.
At present each state and territory monitors its own air quality, with varying rules and regulations. On a national level there is a National Clean Air Agreement. The agreement aims to coordinate cooperation between industry and government at the national, state and local level to reduce air pollution and improve air quality.
Globally, the situation is more serious. The World Health Organization (WHO) reports that almost 90 per cent of people living in the world’s cities are being exposed to dangerous levels of pollution. Outdoor and household air pollution causes an alarming 7 million deaths worldwide.
To compare the levels of pollution across the world, WHO has compiled a database which analyses the concentration of fine particle pollution of 2.5 micrometres or less diameter (PM2.5) and the particulate pollution of 10 micrometres or less diameter (PM10). The concentration of air pollution is measured in micrograms per cubic metre of air (µg/m³).
The pollution particles may consist of smoke, dirt, pollen, mould or other substances. The small size is an important factor in delivering the particles into the lungs, where the chemicals on these particles can trigger the negative health impacts.
Each country has different causes for air pollution, including high rates of construction and air traffic (Qatar), diesel generators and the burning of tyres and plastics for fuel (Afghanistan), substandard gasoline and traffic congestion (Iran), increased cars, factories and power plants (Egypt), the burning of coal (Mongolia), oil and gas industries (UAE) and energy production and industrial emissions (Bahrain).
So what can we do?
Some solutions to reduce the amounts of pollutants released into our air include building safe and affordable public transport systems and making our cities more pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly. Other infrastructure measures such as improved waste management, clean and non-fossil fuel-based power generation and energy efficient buildings would make a huge impact. Industrial and agricultural activities can reduce waste incineration and the rural burning of vegetation. Additionally, we need to provide universal access to clean, affordable fuels and technologies for essential living activities such as cooking, heating and lighting.
Fresh air is vital to our survival. While we are relatively fortunate in Australia compared to other countries, there are still around 5000 deaths per year attributable to air pollution, which is 5000 too many. We need to ensure that we take action to keep our air as clean as possible. For the sake of our health, and that of the environment we live in, coordinated efforts are necessary to reduce the potentially disastrous impacts of air pollution.