By Dr Ben Ewald

In October 2016 the NSW government published a consultation paper “Clean Air for NSW” and we all went along to a public forum and made submissions about air quality. The stated intention was to develop “actions for government to meet its goal of improving average air quality results across NSW”, however the strategy never eventuated. We are now exactly two years down the track and air quality is worse than ever. The worsening PM 10 is focussed on the coal mining and burning regions of the Hunter and Newcastle, while PM2.5 exceedances affect both the Hunter and Western Sydney.

There are 28 sites with fine particle measurements for 2017 and 2018, and the standard is for the annual average to be less than 8 µg/m3. In 2017 there were 7 sites worse than the standard, and in 2018 there were 14. The average value across the 28 sites increased from 7.51 to 7.98 ug/m3. The worst place in NSW for fine particles was Liverpool at 10.1 µg/m3, while other pollution hot spots include Chullora, 8.6, Parramatta North, 9.2  Prospect, 8.5 and Muswellbrook 9.4.

Fine particles carry the greatest health burden, proven to cause death, heart disease, lung cancer, stroke, type two diabetes and low birth weight for babies, and are suspected of causing dementia. Western Sydney already suffers health disadvantage, so the bad air is exacerbating health inequality.

Of the 40 sites that have PM10 data over 4 years, in both 2015 and 2016 one site exceeded the standard, in 2017 there were 3, and in 2018 there were 10. For some of the sites there are mitigating factors: at the beach in Stockton there is a high degree of sea salt which is probably harmless, Maison Diu, Mt Thorley and Warkworth are locations where few people live. The other sites however represent community exposure in places like Muswellbrook, Camberwell and Singleton North which are close to coal mines, and in the suburbs of Newcastle both Carrington and Mayfield are close to the coal loaders.

The NSW EPA will probably blame it all on bush fires and hazard reduction burns. While these certainly can cause a problem, there are only a few fire smoke days in a year so they do not make much change to the annual average.  2018 also had some regional or even continental scale dust storms due to the drought. While this certainly gave days with widespread haze, this is an unlikely explanation for the high annual average as there were another 30 monitors that did not exceed the coarse particle annual standard, including all seven coarse particle monitors in the Sydney basin.

The every day sources of particle air pollution: vehicles, coal mining, power stations, and wood burning heaters are all amenable to regulation by a government prepared to tackle this problem. Luckily NSW is in the run up to an election, so now is the time for each of the parties that would like to form government to present to the people of NSW how they will reverse the trend of deteriorating air quality that is a steady drag on the health of much of the population.

Let’s hear from Mr Daley and Ms Berejiklian how they propose to turn around this deteriorating environmental problem and protect the health of the community.

Dr Ben Ewald is a member of Doctors for the Environment Australia.

Read Dr Ewald’s Clean air for NSW: 2018 update report.