National Pollution Standards

Australia’s current air pollution standards are not strong enough to protect human health. Our national standards currently exceed the World Health Organisation’s recommended thresholds and lag significantly behind most other countries, including the United States, the European Union and China.

Coal-fired power stations and motor vehicles are the biggest sources of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and sulfur dioxide (SO2) pollution in Australia. These are two of the most toxic air pollutants – even the smallest amount of exposure can cause harmful effects.

We know that at least 3000 people die each year from exposure to toxic air pollution and thousands more suffer serious health issues like stroke, lung cancer and heart disease.

An opportunity to improve national air pollution standards

Environment Ministers are due to come together in the next few months to make a decision on whether or not to vary the national air pollution standards for sulfur dioxide (SO2), nitrogen dioxide (NO2), and ozone (O3). This is the first time the standards have been reviewed since they were adopted in 1998. More than 50,000 Australians have died of exposure to air pollution since they came into force.

The review process involves the Environment Ministers from all nine Australian state, territory and Commonwealth governments. Our goal is for Ministers to set international best practice standards for ambient air concentrations of SO2 and NO2 that protect people’s health.

What should our national air pollution standards look like?

Stronger Standards for Sulfur Dioxide (SO2)
We are calling for Australia’s 24-hour standard for sulfur dioxide to be brought into line with the World Health Organisation’s value of 7.6 parts per billion.

Stronger standards for Nitrogen Dioxide (NO2)
We are calling for Australia’s annual average standard for nitrogen dioxide to be set at 9 parts per billion (ppb). While there is no known safe threshold for nitrogen dioxide, more than 9ppb of nitrogen dioxide can cause illness such as asthma and affect lung and brain development in children.

Better air pollution monitoring requirements
We’re urging ministers to expand air monitoring networks to protect communities at risk from air pollution. All air pollution monitoring data should be publicly available.

Health effects of Nitrogen Dioxide (NO2) and Sulfur Dioxide (SO2)

NO2 and SO2 contribute to significant health issues, especially for children, pregnant women and unborn children, elderly people and people with chronic disease. SO2 increases the rate and severity of asthma. It can also reduce infant birth weight and increase cardiovascular and respiratory mortality and hospital admissions. NO2 and O3 worsens allergies and asthma and decreases lung function, even at low concentrations. Health experts recommend stricter standards to protect communities.

Nitrogen dioxide (NO2)

Low levels of nitrogen dioxide can irritate eyes, nose, throat and lungs and lead to coughing, shortness of breath, tiredness and nausea. Exposure can also result in a build-up of fluid in the lungs for 1-2 days after exposure. Breathing high levels of nitrogen dioxide can cause rapid burning, spasms and swelling of tissues in the throat and upper respiratory tract, reduced oxygenation of tissues, a build-up of fluid in the lungs, and even death.

Sulfur dioxide (SO2)

Exposure of the eyes to liquid sulfur dioxide (for example in an industrial accident) can cause severe burns, resulting in the loss of vision. On the skin it produces burns. If breathed, it can cause headaches, general discomfort and anxiety. People with impaired heart or lung function and asthmatics are at increased risk. Repeated or prolonged exposure to moderate concentrations may cause inflammation of the respiratory tract, wheezing and lung damage. It has also proved to be harmful to the reproductive systems of animals and caused developmental changes in their newborn.

Fine particulate matter (PM2.5) from NO2 and SO2

This form of pollution has the most severe health impacts. Secondary particles of PM2.5 form in the atmosphere from SO2 and NO2 gases. Larger particles are trapped in the nose and upper airways, but the finest particles reach the air sacs deep in the lungs and even enter the bloodstream, causing systemic health impacts. According to the World Health Organization, any exposure to particle pollution can be harmful to health.