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Senate Inquiry in Hunter: clean up time for polluted air

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Lee Rhiannon 15 Apr 2013

Over the weekend I read many of the more than 150 submissions to the Senate Inquiry into the health impacts of air pollution,  that will hold its first hearing in Newcastle tomorrow. Greens health spokesperson Senator Richard Di Natale won the support of the other parties to hold this inquiry.  

What struck me reading the submissions is how much is already known about the impacts of polluted air and the ongoing failure of governments to respond to this evidence and protect public health.

This Inquiry is urgently needed but a responsible government would not have allowed it to come to this. Over many years so many people have been exposed to dangerous levels of air pollution.

The NSW Environmental Protection Authority in its submission (submission 80) notes that unregulated sources of air pollution are now becoming more significant, with off-road mining machinery, wood heaters and two stroke engines the major culprits.

The Hunter has been identified as an area where air pollution is on the increase.

Particulate matter known as PM2.5 is the most hazardous air pollutant, estimated to cause 10 to 20 times as many premature deaths as the next worst pollutant, ozone. I am hoping that the Inquiry will recommend enforceable standards for these ultra-fine particles.

Apart from the personal suffering, the economic costs associated with the health impacts of polluted air are huge. A 2005 study in the metropolitan areas of Sydney, Wollongong and Newcastle detailed in the EPA submission put the economic costs of the impact on public health at $4.7 million annually or $893 per person.

In the Hunter the stand out cause of air pollution is coal mining. 66 per cent of the PM2.5 and 87 per cent of the PM10 come from the coal industry.

At the inquiry we will hear from a number of health experts on the dangers of air pollution. Dr Nick Higginbotham, an Associate Professor at Newcastle University, in his submission (submission 96) details how even a few hours exposure can trigger heart failure, strokes and respiratory problems.

A number of submissions note that it is more vulnerable people - older people, young children and those with respiratory problems - who are most impacted by air pollution. Dr Higginbotham raises the issue of environmental injustice having found social inequity of exposure as many vulnerable communities live close to Kooragang Island, an area where the storage and transport of coal is concentrated.

The Australian Medical Association (submission 114) also provides detailed coverage of the extent of the health impacts of polluted air and notes that "urban air pollution accounts for significantly more deaths than the nation's road toll". This left me wondering what the levels would be if air pollution in regional areas like Muswellbrook in the Upper Hunter was included.

Muswellbrook is one of many Hunter communities literally surrounded by coal mines. The Hunter Community Environment Centre in their submission (submission 5) notes that residents in these areas are exposed to high levels of particle pollution on an almost constant basis.

A study undertaken by the Hunter Community Environment Centre found that the National Environment Protection Measures standards for air quality were exceeded on 114 occasions in 2012.

Many of the submissions have put forward clear recommendations which provide the Senate Committee with useful direction. Adopting a standard on the PM2.5 fine particles that has to be implemented and enforced by governments would be a major step forward in responding to the serious problem of air pollution.

I have had the opportunity on many visits to the Hunter to hear from locals about their concerns with the health impacts of the coal industry. I hope this Senate Inquiry will be an important contribution to cleaning up this problem.

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