Air pollution in Morwell from the Hazelwood mine fire.

12 May 2014 — In terms of air quality, Australia is ahead of nations such as the US, according to the data in the new World Health Organization Urban Air Quality Database released on Thursday in Geneva. However, Australians in capital cities and regional centres are still at risk from the level of particulate air pollution, according to Professor Bin Jalaludin from the UNSW School of Public Health and Community Medicine.

The database covers 1600 cities across 91 countries, with Australian data including all the capital cities and many regional centres. For Australia, the worst locations in terms of particulate air pollution were Traralgon in the Latrobe Valley, Geelong and Melbourne. It’s worth noting the Traralgon figures were based on data collected before the Hazelwood mine fire, and represent the basic status quo of pollution from sources including the region’s coal fired power stations.

In the media announcement accompanying the database, WHO said, “In most cities where there is enough data to compare the situation today with previous years, air pollution is getting worse. Many factors contribute to this increase, including reliance on fossil fuels such as coal fired power plants, dependence on private transport motor vehicles, inefficient use of energy in buildings, and the use of biomass for cooking and heating.

“But some cities are making notable improvements – demonstrating that air quality can be improved by implementing policy measures such as banning the use of coal for ‘space heating’ in buildings, using renewable or ‘clean’ fuels for electricity production, and improving efficiency of motor vehicle engines.”

Professor Bin Jaludin echoed WHO’s findings, saying, “Common sources of particles are on-road and off-road vehicles, domestic wood heating, commercial activities and lawn mowers. Dust storms and fire smoke (bushfires and planned burns) can lead to extremely high levels of particles.”

He cautioned that even though particulate air pollution levels are generally lower in Australian cities compared to many in the world, the health effects of air pollution were evident even at low levels.

“At this stage, we do not believe there is a threshold level for air pollution health effects. There is good evidence that exposure to fine particles can lead to hospitalisation and deaths from heart disease, and is also likely to have an impact on lung diseases,” he said.

“Also, late last year, the International Agency for Research on Cancer announced that it had classified outdoor air pollution as carcinogenic to humans.

“As whole populations are exposed to outdoor air pollution, it is important that we protect our most vulnerable (for example, children, the elderly and those with chronic diseases) from the effects of air pollution by implementing effective mitigation policies.”

The report noted that individual cities could take local action to improve air quality, and that good air quality went hand in hand with economic development, as indicated by some major cities in Latin America that meet, or approach, the WHO air quality guidelines.

Dr Carlos Dora, coordinator, interventions for healthy environments, WHO Department of Public Health, Environmental and Social Determinants of Health, said, “We cannot buy clean air in a bottle, but cities can adopt measures that will clean the air and save the lives of their people.”

The WHO report suggested these measures could include ensuring houses were energy efficient, that urban development was compact and well served by public transport routes, that street design was appealing and safe for pedestrians and cyclists, and waste was well managed.

You can download the report and database here.