26 September 2023

Traffic pollution could be far more dangerous than previously thought

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Andi Yu* says Australian researchers have found that premature death from air pollution is 10 times more likely than a fatal road accident.

Traffic pollution likely causes more than 11,000 premature deaths in Australia a year, new modelling by climate researchers has revealed.

The grave estimate from the study means that death from air pollution in Australia is 10 times more likely than a fatal road accident.

“With these high levels of mortality and morbidity impacts, we look to our leaders to make the decisions required to reduce the social, economic and human costs of vehicle emissions,” co-lead researcher from the University of Melbourne Clare Walter said.

The study conducted by the Melbourne Climate Futures used a peer-reviewed New Zealand study of particulate matter — or PM 2.5 — and nitrogen dioxide levels, to assess the risk for Australia.

The New Zealand study estimated that country’s traffic pollution death toll at 3,300 premature deaths per year.

For Australia, a much larger country, the estimates are:

  • 11,105 premature deaths in adults per year
  • 12,210 cardiovascular hospitalisations per year
  • 6,840 respiratory hospitalisations per year
  • 66,000 active asthma cases per year

A 2021 study had estimated that all air pollution caused around 2,000 deaths a year in Australia – a number that has been widely used since then.

In an expert position statement released on Friday, the researchers said more robust data was needed to quantify the health and economic effects of traffic emissions.

Air pollution is caused by both man-made and natural sources including heavy industry, vehicle emissions and wood fire heaters as well as dust storms and bushfires.

Particulate matter formed by combustion processes is particularly small and can enter the bloodstream leading to systemic inflammation and detrimental effects on organs throughout the body.

Air pollution can cause a wide range of harm to the human body.

It has been linked to illnesses including stroke, diabetes, asthma, lung cancer, premature birth and low birth weight.

Nitrogen dioxide is a gas formed from high temperature combustion, such as emissions from vehicles, power stations and industrial processes.

Experts call for policy change

Doctors for the Environment Australia air pollution spokesperson Vicki Kotsirilos called for more detailed research to know the harmful effects of vehicle emissions.

“I am extremely shocked because I didn’t realise the gravity of the situation,” Dr Kotsirilos said.

“We do require more current robust estimates of vehicle emission impacts to guide our policy makers.”

Dr Kotsirilos, a GP, said that people needed to start changing their behaviour to reduce pollution from their vehicles.

“Simply leaving our cars behind, walking to the shop, cycling, avoiding idling (leaving the car running), and moving towards electric vehicles can make a significant difference in reducing air pollution exposure for people,” she said.

Campaigns about the hazards of smoking need to be created about air pollution to increase awareness, she said.

“It’s vital that the government intervenes and starts talking about this just as we did in the past with smoking.”

Heart Foundation chief medical adviser and cardiologist Garry Jennings said policy makers should do everything possible to have the cleanest fuels and regulate emissions.

“Air pollution is an emerging issue in cardiovascular health,” he said.

“It’s fairly clear that very fine particles…are capable of damaging not only the lungs but also the heart and cardiovascular systems.”

Atmospheric chemistry professor Clare Murphy from the University of Wollongong said air pollution was hard to measure accurately and was therefore an “imprecise” area of science.

“It doesn’t surprise me if there’s emerging evidence that the stuff that’s caused by traffic exhaust is really quite a lot worse for you because it’s known that it’s got toxic things in it,” she said.

“It’s another reason we should be pushing towards electric vehicles, as well as wanting to de-carbonise, and have more active pathways for people to cycle, and more public transport.

“Because the levels that we get in our cities are not as scary as they are in other parts of the world like Beijing and Delhi, we actually have quite lax fuel standards.

“More awareness would be good and more push towards clean air strategies is well overdue in this country.”

*Andi Yu is a journalist and digital producer for ABC News Melbourne.

This article first appeared at abc.net.au

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