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Poor air standards leaving communities breathless

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Communities are being exposed to dangerously high levels of air pollution that are harming health and causing premature deaths, a senior AMA member has warned.

AMA Federal Councillor Dr Michael Gliksman told a conference on air quality that the nation’s fragmented and outdated system for assessing and monitoring air pollution and enforcing clean air standards was failing the community and leaving many vulnerable to significant harm.

Addressing the Air Pollution Forum hosted by the Woolcock Institute in Sydney on 19 September, Dr Gliksman warned that increasing pollution from road transport and mining, combined with the growing effects of climate change, was smothering many communities in an increasingly toxic mix of airborne chemicals and particles that were harming health.

“It is very likely that these combined effects will have significant adverse effects on the morbidity and mortality of the Australian population,” he said. “There is no known safe level of exposure to air pollutants, such as ozone or particulates, and exposure to levels below the current standard poses risks to human health.”

In its submission to a recent Senate inquiry into air quality, the AMA identified major shortcomings in current pollution standards, as well as the effectiveness of systems to monitor and enforce those standards.

In the submission, the AMA warned that “thousands of Australians are dying prematurely or being hospitalised for asthma attacks and heart complaints because of lax standards and enforcement that leave millions exposed to harmful levels of particulate matter, diesel fumes and other airborne pollutants”.

In its findings, the Senate Community Affairs Reference Committee echoed the AMA’s concerns and called for significant improvements in the nation’s air quality monitoring arrangements as well as for mandatory health impact assessments for commercial and industrial developments.

Dr Gliksman said advances in understanding the health effects of air pollution had made improvements in pollution detection and enforcement imperative.

“There is considerable evidence documenting the substantial health impact of air pollution, which range from acute and chronic effects, reproductive and neuro-cognitive defects, through to premature mortality,” he said. “The World Health Organisation’s most recent appraisal of scientific evidence indicated that these effects are even more pronounced than was previously thought.”

Dr Gliksman warned that this made the task of overhauling and upgrading surveillance and enforcement systems even more urgent.

“Various developments have called into question the effectiveness of current air quality management in Australia,” he said. “Current air quality standards lag behind international standards. They have failed to keep pace with scientific evidence.

“Insufficient monitoring and poor compliance mechanisms, fragmentation between different sectors and tiers of government, and the lack of exposure targets are but some of the areas requiring review and reform.”

Dr Gliksman said failings and gaps in current arrangements left individuals and communities vulnerable to harm.

“Major sources of hazardous air pollutants are not currently regulated. The current monitoring network needs to be strengthened and expanded [and] more effective enforcement mechanisms are also required,” he said.

Dr Gliksman warned that governments and business could no longer neglect the issue.

“Local communities affected by air pollution are rising up in protest at what is happening to their lifestyle, their livelihood, and their health,” he said. “These communities have a growing and meaningful voice, [and] the AMA and other health groups are adding public health evidence to that voice.”

Adrian Rollins