The Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF) released a report in November that examined industrial emissions from the National Pollutant Inventory (NPI) in comparison to weekly household income. The report provides an interesting perspective on air quality in Australia, in simple terms finding that there is a strong correlation between poorer air quality and low household income. We examine whether this conclusion is soundly based.
NPI in Australia
It is well recognised that Australia enjoys a very high standard of air quality, comparable to Scandinavia, a region known for its clean air. This is not to say that there is not room for improvement. Each level of government in Australia has a role in managing air quality. At the Federal level, certain programs and initiatives are coordinated through National Environment Protection Measures (NEPMs). For example, national air quality standards for key anthropogenic pollutants have been adopted and each state or territory jurisdiction has agreed to conduct air quality monitoring and report each year against those standards. State and local governments have responsibility for development application, assessment and approval processes and environmental licensing of industries. This means that state and, in some instances, local governments directly regulate industrial emitters of air pollutants.
The NPI is an initiative of the Federal government that has been implemented as a NEPM through the states. It provides information on emissions from industry and diffuse sources of 93 substances that have been identified as having a possible effect on human health and the environment.
The ACF Report
The ACF report has used a number of facilities in a given postcode as a measure of air quality for that suburb. This is not likely to be an accurate or reliable indicator. Whilst the NPI includes data from industries that trigger reporting thresholds, it does not reliably capture emissions from smaller industries, diffuse sources such as traffic and wood burning stoves or natural sources such as bush fires, pollen and dust. All of which can be significant contributors to poor air quality that can aggravate or contribute towards medical conditions.
Air quality in Australia is monitored by state and territory governments through an extensive network of monitoring stations, that measure levels of key pollutants in the atmosphere. Consideration of the measurements made by these monitoring stations is perhaps a more reliable indicator of air quality. The World Air Quality (Index) is an interesting project that collects data from hundreds of air quality monitoring stations world wide and generates an index for each location. Recent monitoring results for Australia indicate that the most unfavourable index values are related to either heavy traffic or dust in regional areas as opposed to pollution from industrial facilities that does not necessarily agree with the findings of the ACF review.
A valuable follow up to the ACF review would be to incorporate monitoring data and develop a more refined picture of air quality in Australia and practical measures that could be taken to improve it.
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