Increasing Australia’s lax regulations around vehicle emissions could improve human health while helping to tackle climate change, experts at the inaugural National Air Quality and Health Meeting have heard.

The meeting, held this month, saw experts in air quality and lung health come together to develop plans to tackle air quality in Australia, which they see as a growing issue. Coordinated by the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre and Lung Foundation Australia, the meeting discussed air safety, links to respiratory diseases such as lung cancer and air quality hotspots across the country.

Exposure to high concentrations of fine particulate matter produced by vehicles, industry and power plants has been linked to an increased likelihood of the development of lung cancers. For example, combined data from three US studies suggests that diesel engine exhaust at levels common in the workplace and in outdoor air appears to pose substantial excess lifetime risks of lung cancer. Also, a study by researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University shows that excess pollution from Volkswagens affected by the emissions cheating scandal will cause 60 early deaths in the US.

“Air pollution affects 100 per cent of the population from unborn babies to the very elderly,” Lung Foundation Australia chief executive Heather Allan said.

According to ClimateWorks Australia, transport emissions contribute significantly to air pollution and are among the fastest growing sources of emissions in Australia, having increased by 47.5 per cent since 1990, with a projected rise of an additional six per cent to 2020. The transport sector currently accounts for about 17 per cent of the country’s emissions, with most coming from passenger and light commercial vehicles.

Research by the body has found that the transport sector is the most financially attractive opportunity to reduce emissions across the economy, through improving the fuel efficiency standards of conventional internal combustion engines in passenger and light commercial vehicles.

Other emissions reductions could be achieved through shifting to electric vehicles and switching road freight to alternative, lower emissions sources. Electric vehicles, when powered with renewable energy, provide a zero emissions solution for passenger transport, and reduce both local air pollutants, which can contribute to an increased risk of lung cancer and other respiratory diseases, ClimateWorks says.

More information about the National Air Quality and Health Meeting and further reading can be found on the Lung Foundation website.