Vehicle emissions cause 40% more deaths than road toll

Poor air quality can have major health consequences, and with Australia having highest allowable sulphur in petrol in the OECD, the CAUL Hub's and MEI’s proposal for legislative change is justified.

You’re probably not concerned by our air quality – most Australians aren’t. After all, it conforms to global standards, and our skylines aren’t cloaked with visible smog. But should you worry?

Yes. Mounting evidence shows a clear link between our level of air pollution and serious health consequences. In 2015, five Australians died daily from related illnesses, including stroke and lung cancer – but this is just the tip of the iceberg.

Research also suggests links with bladder cancer, Alzheimer’s, and respiratory infections in children and the elderly. Exposure during pregnancy could also lead to lower IQ and ADHD. The full extent of the impact remains unknown, but we’re learning more about the cause.

You see, our air is polluted by trillions of ‘ultrafine’ particles (PM1) emitted from all vehicles, even new cars. They can’t be seen or smelt, but their tiny size makes them especially dangerous. When inhaled, these particles travel through the bloodstream and central nervous system, lodging deep inside the brain, heart and other organs. They also penetrate the skin and spread via the lymphatic system.

Ultrafine particles are most predominant in diesel emissions; alarming, given 20% of our vehicles are now powered by diesel (up 60% since 2011). Many drivers thought they were doing the right thing, because improved fuel efficiency appeared ‘greener’.

But actually, the rush for diesel has harmed millions of Australians – and it’s far worse for anyone living or working near a busy road, including children in schools and childcare centres.

The City of Maribyrnong in Melbourne’s inner west – between the port and container yards – records 21,000 trucks daily. And guess what? Childhood asthma in Maribyrnong is double the national rate.

With increased urbanisation and more vehicles on our roads, the health damage will increase – unless we take steps to reduce emissions.

Australia’s efforts to mitigate harm lag behind many developed countries: Europe, Japan, South Korea and the US have reduced fuel sulphur content to 10ppm, thus limiting exposure to ultrafine particles. Australia’s ULP sulphur content is 150ppm, with PULP at 50ppm.  

In the US, penalties now apply to drivers who leave their engines running unnecessarily. Idling for 10 seconds wastes more fuel, and releases more emissions, than re-starting. Imagine how our children would benefit from anti-idling policies at school drop-off zones.

There is simply no safe level when it comes to air pollution. Our policy makers must aim for best practice, not just meeting standards – because even the smallest decrease will improve our health.

This article was written as a summary of the findings in the CAUL Hub and MEI submission 'Better fuel for cleaner air'.

Carmen Tallott is a freelance writer, you can find more of her work on her lifestyle blog:

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