National Pollution Standards

Australia’s current air pollution standards are not strong enough to protect human health. Australian standards currently exceed the World Health Organisation’s recommended thresholds and by international comparison, lag significantly. Much stricter standards have been adopted in most other countries, including the US, EU, and China.

Coal-fired power stations are the biggest sources of nitrogen oxides (NOx) and sulfur dioxide (SO2) in Australia. Ozone is a secondary pollutant that forms from NOx particles on hot sunny days. PM2.5 is another toxic secondary pollutant that forms from SO2 and NOx in the atmosphere. There is no safe level of exposure to these pollutants and there are harmful effects from exposure at levels well below the current air quality standards.

We know that at least 279 people die prematurely each year in NSW as a result of toxic air pollution from the state’s five coal-fired power stations. The health impacts also include 233 babies born with reduced birthweight, 361 people developing type 2 diabetes and 2,614 years of life lost each year due to uncontrolled air pollution from NSW power stations. The research has not yet been done – but the national number is likely to be extremely concerning.

An opportunity to improve national pollution standards

Environment Ministers are likely to come together in late 2019 to make a decision whether or not to vary the national air pollution standards for sulfur dioxide, oxides of nitrogen and ozone that were first adopted in 1998. 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 sulfur dioxide, oxides of nitrogen and Ozone, which are consistent with, or stronger than, the relatively conservative World Health Organisation guidelines.

Australian people and communities expect to be able to breath clean air. This means best practice pollution control standards. Ministers need to listen to the community and know that there’s widespread interest in this decision.

Health effects of Sulfur Dioxide (SO2), Nitrogen Oxides (NOx) and fine particulate matter (PM2.5).

NOx, SO2 and O3 contribute to significant health effects, 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. NOx and O3 worsens allergies and asthma and decreases lung function, even at low concentrations. Health experts recommend stricter standards to protect communities. The below information is taken from

Sulfur dioxide (SO2)

Exposure of the eyes to liquid sulfur dioxide, (from, for example an industrial accident) can cause severe burns, resulting in the loss of vision. On the skin it produces burns. Other health effects include headache, 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 experimental animals and caused developmental changes in their newborn.

Oxides of nitrogen (NOx)

Low levels of oxides of nitrogen can irritate eyes, nose, throat and lungs, possibly leading 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 oxides of nitrogen 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 maybe even death. Skin or eye contact with high concentrations of oxides of nitrogen gases or nitrogen dioxide liquid will likely lead to serious burns.

Fine particulate matter (PM2.5)

The form of pollution that has the most convincing evidence of harm and the strongest effect is fine particles with an aerodynamic diameter of up to 2.5 microns (PM2.5).

Secondary particles of PM2.5 form in the atmosphere from SO2 and NOx 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 effects.

Technologies exist to capture particles, NOx and SO2 pollutants rather than releasing them to the environment, but the use of these technologies is rare in Australia despite being required in most other countries.


Above: A visualisation of just how small particulate matter is.

There is no threshold below which particle pollution exposure is not harmful to health (World Health Organisation). So although environmental regulators in Australia tend to consider particle concentrations up to the national standard ‘acceptable’ or even ‘good’, community health is improved by reducing particle pollution right down to zero. Health impacts are associated with both short-term and long-term exposure.

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