Reducing Australia’s air pollution has never been this urgent

As bushfire season approaches in the midst of a health pandemic, reducing Australia’s air pollution has never been this urgent

clean air

Today is the very first International Day for Clean Air. Environmental lawyer Bronya Lipski shares this piece as new reports show the alarming health burden from unregulated air pollutants in Australia.

I grew up in the Latrobe Valley, heartland of Victoria’s electricity generation and coal mining. My dad worked at Yallourn, my grandfather and uncle worked at Hazelwood, and my family proudly produced the electricity that many Australians take for granted. 

Yet my mother refused to live anywhere where we could see a power station smoke stack. She  – a nurse – understood first-hand the devastating human price of coal-burning power generation.  

Those of us with homes around power stations didn’t have access to pollution information. But the health impacts associated with coal pollution were something people expected or assumed because they watched dirty smoke emitted from stacks 24/7, and had to brush coal dust off their washing and verandas. Now, studies are documenting the horrors that exposure to power station pollution can inflict or worsen: lung disease, heart disease, stroke, lung cancer, babies born with low birthweight, Type 2 diabetes and in the most severe cases, brain damage in young children and teenagers, cerebral palsy and birth defects. 

The people regulating these industries tend not to have smoke stacks within sight. But a new peer-reviewed report published by Greenpeace confirms that even people living in major cities are impacted by pollution from Australia’s 22 active coal-burning power stations. The report shows how far the particulate matter, nitrogen and sulphur dioxide can travel — often past adjoining state borders, with levels way above those considered safe by international standards.  

Sydney, Melbourne and Perth have recorded unacceptable levels of such pollution, which includes fine particle pollution (PM 2.5), nitrogen and sulfur dioxides, and arsenic, lead and mercury. The trajectories of pollutants have been documented in the Greenpeace report, which finds 2.1 million Australians are exposed to toxic substances from coal-fired power plants. 

In the past year, these have killed more people than COVID 19. Exposure to coal pollution is responsible for a national annual death toll “eight times greater than the average annual casualty number from all natural disasters combined,” according to the report. It finds Australia’s coal-burning power stations are causing approximately 800 premature deaths, 14,500 asthma attacks and 850 cases of babies being born with low birth weight every year.  

These findings support many similar studies, and coincide with new research in the Medical Journal of Australia finding unborn babies whose mothers were exposed to smoke from the Hazelwood coal mine fire are at greater risk of respiratory infections in early childhood, despite not directly inhaling the pollution. 

One of my little sisters, and many of my cousins, were among children growing up with chronic asthma. From a very early age my sister would get very sick, and had to be on multiple courses of steroids, antibiotics and various asthma prevention medication, none of which seemed to work.  

I had to learn to get my sister on to a ventilator in an emergency situation. I had to learn to stay calm and ensure the right dose of medication was in the machine, help my sister calm down, and be ready to call the ambulance. 

Each time my sister got sick, doctors would tell my parents: take your child out of the Latrobe Valley to get better.  

But now we know that pollutants can spread hundreds of kilometres, and we know there is no safe level of exposure. Deadly air pollution generated by ageing coal-burning power stations is no longer something that happens “over there”, and our governments must urgently move to redress the serious flaws in our regulatory system. 

Coal-burning power stations are among Australia’s biggest sources of air pollution and our ambient air pollution exceeds the World Health Organization’s recommended thresholds. Our regulatory standards lag behind most other countries, including China, the United States and the European Union. 

Australians pay a deadly $2.4 billion health bill for this public health crisis. In a new report released this week by Environmental Justice Australia, a team of actuaries modelled the economic cost of the health impacts of air pollution from coal-fired power. They found that the health bill is $2.4 billion annually on conservative estimates, or more than two-thirds of federal government spending on the COVID healthcare package. 

The report, based on conservative modelling, quantifies the extent to which big polluters get off scot-free for polluting far more than other countries allow, while Australians pay the cost with their health and their lives. 

“Whenever our politicians parrot the fact free mantra that coal is cheap, they ignore all of these till-now uncosted externalities,” said Tim Buckley, Director of Finance Studies, Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, when the report was released. 

Part of my work as an environmental lawyer is working to redress a public health crisis generated by lack of pollution control on coal-fired power stations. There are pollution controls that can be installed in power stations so people don’t have to experience what my family did. Australia is one of the few countries in the world that does not require power stations to install best-practice pollution controls.  

No Australian state has any active strategy to reduce air pollution with policies and programs to ensure clean air. Australia’s coal-fired power stations are not even fitted with many of the basic pollution controls required in most other countries that can cut toxic pollutants by more than 85 percent.  

Instead, power stations in Australia are licenced to emit pollutant concentrations that dramatically exceed limits set by comparable countries. This amounts to our governments giving these coal-fired power stations a licence to harm our communities. 

My work in part involves advocating for state governments to use existing laws and legal instruments to crack down on air pollution and implement clean air strategies with measures to reduce pollution from coal-fired power stations to as close to zero as possible. They must set strong stack emission limits in line with international standards and require operators to install continuous stack monitoring and best practice pollution controls. 

Right now, in addition to inadequate emissions limits and poor regulation, the community right-to-know tool – the National Pollutant Inventory (NPI) – relies on estimated data produced by the power stations and is considered redundant by regulators, and current air quality monitoring does not effectively measure air quality for people who live closest to coal-fired power stations. 

But there are easy solutions. State governments can move quickly to put in place stronger laws and regulation to reduce pollution from coal-burning power stations.  

State environment ministers can advocate for strong health-based national air pollution standards; expand air quality monitoring to residential areas exposed to air pollution from coal-burning power stations to measure the health risk to communities; implement clean air strategies with measures to reduce pollution from major sources to as close to zero as possible; and set strong stack emission limits for coal-burning power stations in line with international standards. 

These measures would require operators to install continuous stack monitoring and best practice pollution controls that reduce toxic air pollution by more than 85 percent – and see a massive reduction in the health burden and associated costs. 

With stronger national air pollution standards and better state laws and regulations, governments can make coal-fired power stations clean up their act and save lives. 

As bushfire season approaches, in the midst of a health pandemic, reducing major sources of pollution has never been more urgent, nor politically easy.

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