Australia is considered to generally have a very high standard of air quality. Despite this, approximately 3000 people die each year due to diseases associated with exposure to air pollution in our country. See below for specific resources for the Gippsland region of Victoria.
Pollution from transport, gas and coal-fired power stations, wood-fired heaters and bushfires contribute to our air pollution.
Air pollution from coal-burning power stations
Air pollution from Australia’s ageing and increasingly unreliable coal-burning power stations is responsible for 800 premature deaths, 14,000 asthma symptoms among children and 850 cases of low birth weight in newborns each year, according to a ground-breaking report by Greenpeace.
The report Lethal Power: How burning coal is killing people in Australia, marks the first time the health impacts of burning coal for electricity have been scientifically assessed at a national level and the results are alarming.
Air pollution and bushfire smoke during pregnancy
In July 2021 the Royal Australian College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RANZCOG) issued new patient resources warning of the dangers of air pollution and bushfire smoke to pregnant people or those planning to conceive.
Patients are warned to avoid exposure to air pollution on heavily trafficked roads, bushfire smoke or indoor smoke from things such as cigarettes, unflued fireplaces or incense.
Air pollution during pregnancy is conclusively linked to gestational diabetes, pre-term birth and growth restriction, while studies conducted in countries with high pollution also show a link to high blood pressure, miscarriage and fertility issues.
Air pollution from wood smoke
Wood smoke e.g. from domestic heaters and burning green waste, is a significant source of harmful air pollution. In Launceston, programs to assist people to switch from wood to electric heating in the early 2000's were associated with reductions in deaths from heart and lung disease during wintertime.
Climate change is making air pollution worse.
Climate change affects air quality in a range of ways, including through its influence on pollutants such as ozone and particulate matter, and aeroallergens, such as pollens and moulds. Climate change also indirectly influences particulate matter levels by increasing the frequency and severity of bushfires and dust storms.
During the Black Summer of 2019-2020, Australians breathed air pollution up to 26 times above levels considered hazardous to human health.
How does air pollution affect health?
Image credit: How Air Pollution Harms your Body, Moms for Clean Air Action.
Worldwide air pollution is estimated to kill seven million people every year. You can find out more on the World Health Organisation website.
Gippsland Air Pollution
Below is a 45-minute video recording of our online Gippsland Air Quality and Health Forum presented on Wed Aug 26th 2020, organised in partnership with Asthma Australia and Lung Foundation Australia. It summarises the health impacts of air pollution and some of what we know about the issues in Gippsland.
The problem in the Valley
"PM2.5s" are microscopic particles that can be breathed in, absorbed into the bloodstream and cause damage throughout the body
A United States study in 2017 of over 60 million people aged 65 and over found that PM2.5 concentrations as low as 5 micrograms per cubic metre of air can harm health and increase risk of death
In 2019 the average concentrations of PM2.5s measured in Latrobe Valley towns were between 7.1 and 8.9 micrograms per cubic metre (7.1 in Morwell South, 7.5 in Moe, 7.6 in Churchill, 7.8 in Morwell East and 8.9 in Traralgon - data from EPA Victoria)
Here are those pollution levels plotted on a graph adapted from the US study that correlated increased pollution exposure with an increased risk of death:
Figure adapted from this article, with annotations based on Latrobe Valley air quality
Another study in Brisbane, published in 2018, found that PM2.5 levels in this range were also associated with increased risk of preterm birth and low birth weight for pregnant mothers
The same study found that exposure to ozone was correlated with the same adverse pregnancy outcomes around levels that were average for Morwell South and Traralgon in 2019 (as per EPA data these levels were 17.5 parts per billion for Morwell South and 16.5 parts per billion for Traralgon; ozone levels are not monitored by the EPA in other Latrobe Valley towns)
Where does the pollution come from?
According to estimates by EPA Victoria most air pollution in the Latrobe Valley comes from electricity generation:
Read the Hazelwood Mine Fire Inquiry Report 2015/2016 Volume III - Health Improvement.
Other parts of Gippsland
We know less about the general air quality in other parts of Gippsland because there are either fewer or no EPA air quality monitors in these areas. However air pollution researchers have estimated that coal pollution may be causing premature deaths, low weight births and asthma symptoms across Gippsland - here are their estimates for each local government area (black lines representing 95% confidence intervals):
Data is also viewable in table form here
Source: Farrow et al, 2020, “Lethal power: how burning coal is killing people in Australia”, unpublished dataset (see the report at https://www.greenpeace.org.au/research/lethal-power-how-coal-is-killing-people-in-australia/ for statewide data and methodology).
Coal pollution must be better regulated
Latrobe Valley coal-fired power stations are currently allowed to emit far more pollution than similar power stations in the United States, Europe and China. The following comparison table is an excerpt from Environmental Justice Australia's 2018 report "Toxic and Terminal":
Since that report was written European limits on pollution have lowered even further
Victorian limits on pollution from coal-fired power stations are far more lax than those in other countries and it's putting Latrobe Valley citizens' health at risk. That's why we're calling on the Victorian Government to reduce air pollution and to properly support the Valley in a just transition from coal to clean energy.