Associate Professor Adrian Barnett

Australian governments should use a thorough cost–benefit analysis instead of existing national pollution standards when assessing new infrastructure projects, according to pollution expert Professor Adrian Barnett.

The National Environment Protection Measures sets maximum daily limits for six key outdoor pollutants, however Professor Barnett, associate professor at Queensland University of Technology, said many authorities were wrongly assuming this was a “safe” threshold for health when approving major projects.

Testing the assumption, Professor Barnett calculated the health effects of raising the concentration of pollutants to just under the NEPM limits in Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane.

“I’ve found that increasing pollution levels to just below the NEPM standards would cause the deaths of an extra 6000 people each year – 2600 in both Melbourne and Sydney and 800 in Brisbane,” Professor Barnett said.

“The increase would hospitalise a further 20,700 people per year across those cities.”

Professor Barnett said that multiple studies had shown there was no safe level of air pollution, and that it was inexcusable for authorities to use a “safe-or-dangerous” interpretation of the standards.

“I have lost count of the number of government-commissioned environmental reports that have used this fallacy. This practice should have ended years ago.”

In a commentary published in the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Public Health, Professor Barnett cited recent environmental reports for the East-West Link in Melbourne and trains carrying coal in Queensland that concluded that predicted pollution increases were at “safe” levels.

“Locals concerned about the potential health effects have found it difficult to get past the argument that the increases are below the standards and therefore everything is fine,” he said.

“But any new project that increases air pollution will always mean an increase in illness.”

Professor Barnett called on Australian authorities to instead use thorough cost-benefit analyses of increased pollution levels in future environmental studies, rather than the standards. Increased health problems could then be balanced against the economic and societal benefit of the new infrastructure or industry, he said.

“Such cost-benefit analyses are not difficult to do and they will allow policy makers to make better-informed decisions based on the merits and costs of the project.

“Changes also need to be made to the National Environment Protection Measures documentation and website to prominently state that the standards should not be used to judge whether individual projects are safe or dangerous.”

The World Health Organization has estimated outdoor air pollution causes 3.7 million deaths every year, 3000 of those in Australia.