Air pollution in australia
Even though our air quality is better than many other countries, air pollution is a significant problem. Increased urbanisation, higher demands on transport, energy consumption, the burning of fossil fuels such as coal and gas, the use of wood heaters and the burning of vegetation all contribute to higher levels of air pollution.
The air pollution caused by the 2019-20 bushfires raised the awareness of many Australians about the importance of clean air. In 2020, smoke from those bushfires was estimated to have caused the deaths of 445 people, even though they lived hundreds of kilometres from the fires.
Air pollution has been linked to higher rates of cancer, heart disease, stroke, dementia and respiratory diseases such as asthma.
Children are particularly vulnerable, and early exposure can have long term, irreversible negative impacts on respiratory function. Pollution has also been linked to developmental problems in children, as well as premature labour and low birth weights.
The cost of air pollution to our health system is estimated at between $11 - $24 billion annually.
Arguably the two most harmful air pollutants to population health in Australia are particle pollution and ground-level ozone.
Particle pollution, also known as particulate matter or PM, is extremely small solid particles and liquid droplets suspended in the air.
Particle pollution comes from burning such as wood in wood heaters, petrol in cars, coal in power plants, chemicals in industrial processes and vegetation from burning off, planned burns and bushfires.
Particles are so fine they can be inhaled into the lungs and enter the bloodstream. Particles are measured as either PM10, PM2.5 and ultra-fine particles. Particles are too small for the eye to see - each about 35 times smaller than a grain of sand.
Numerous studies have shown associations between exposure to particles and increased hospital admissions, and premature mortality from illness such as heart or lung diseases. Even very low amounts of particle pollution or short-term exposure cause health effects. There is currently no evidence of a threshold below which exposure to particulate matter does not cause any health effects.
There are two forms of ozone. The ‘good’ ozone which is found in the upper atmosphere and protects us from most of the sun's ultraviolet radiation. However, ozone at ground level where we can breathe it causes serious health problems.
The raw ingredients for ozone are nitrogen oxides (NOx) and volatile organic compounds (VOCs). Ground level ozone is the main component of smog and is the product of the interaction between sunlight and emissions from sources such as motor vehicles, industry, and burning of wood. When these gases come in contact with sunlight, they react and form ‘smog’.
Places like Australia which receives a lot of sunshine, high temperatures and moderate winds for extended periods of time is likely to experience relatively high concentrations of ozone.
Ground level ozone is more readily formed during the summer months and reaches its highest concentrations in the afternoon or early evening.
Refer to our resources page for more information about air pollution.
Air pollution drives climate change
Air pollution not only contributes to climate change (through short-lived climate pollutants such as black carbon and methane emissions) but climate change will also reduce our future air quality. If emissions are not reduced, data modelling indicates that there will be significant increases in summer smog (ozone) after 2030. Additionally, an increase in the frequency of droughts will lead to a rise in particle air pollution as a result of more bushfires and wind-blown dust storms.