The Covid-19 pandemic has had some interesting results in the way we move around. In some states, bike sales are up and the second-hand car market is described as “resilient”.
There is every reason to be concerned about contracting Covid-19 as we move around our neighbourhoods, and we are reminded constantly of the need for caution.
The virus has infected and impacted thousands of people, and killed over 500 people in Australia and many of the survivors are left with ongoing medical problems the full extent of which is still unknown.
There is, however, another, silent and largely ignored health hazard accompanying our daily commute, and that is air pollution.
The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare reported in 2011 that 3,000 premature deaths occur each year as a result of air pollution. About half of that comes from transport pollution, and our cars contribute the bulk of that.
The car in front of you may look to have a clean exhaust but you are breathing a toxic cocktail of noxious substances. A 2013 study found particulate matter in air pollution is attributable to 9% of coronary heart disease in Australia’s four largest cities.
Oxides of nitrogen, or nitrox, are associated with increased rates of asthma, chronic lung disease and heart disease. Ozone is a powerful respiratory irritant and can aggravate bronchitis, emphysema, and asthma.
Sulphur, which comes from unleaded petrol and diesel in Australia, is emitted as sulphur dioxide from exhaust and is also a respiratory irritant. Diesel engine exhaust is a mixture of harmful air-borne chemicals that are carcinogenic and can cause lung cancer. Consequently, diesel is classified as a carcinogen.
With Australia’s air quality standards for nitrogen dioxide, sulphur dioxide, and ozone currently under review, we have an opportunity to introduce laws that will markedly improve the air we breathe.
Peak medical bodies such as the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners and Doctors for the Environment Australia have called for tougher standards than those proposed by the National Environment Protection Council.
For some pollutants, including particulates such as PM 2.5 and PM 10, and nitrox compounds, there is no “safe” threshold or cut off below which there is no health harm. Children exposed to long-term nitrogen dioxide, nitrogen oxide and particulate PM2.5 from traffic air pollution are at higher risk of developing poor lung function and increased risk of asthma.
The Ministerial Forum on Vehicle Emissions established in 2015 was tasked with reviewing Australia’s regulatory framework for vehicle emissions. The Regulation Impact Statement on Vehicle Emissions released by the Forum in 2016 clearly sets out all the health impacts associated with vehicle pollution which have been known for decades. The Forum is yet to acknowledge or address these health issues.
Australia lags all the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries which have improved both noxious emission standards and fuel efficiency standards.
The European Union adopted Euro 6 standards for light vehicles in 2014 while Australia, now a dumping ground for more polluting, less efficient vehicles, waits in 2020 for Euro 6 emission vehicles. The risible tweaking of fuel standards to reduce sulphur content by 2027 is indicative of a failure by the Forum to treat the health problems seriously.
The Adelaide City Council recently declared Driver’s Month to attract more cars back into the CBD in order to promote more commerce. What comes next is demand for more parking spaces and car parks, congestion, deterioration of the urban environment, and abandonment of public transport.
Why not promote safe public transport, cycling or pedestrian traffic instead? There are health consequences associated with rising vehicle emissions. Some of the most liveable cities in the world now ban cars from the CBD or strictly limit them. Many European cities now ban diesel vehicles altogether.
The evidence is now clear that electric vehicles can reduce air pollution. They can also reduce pollutants, such as ozone, a greenhouse gas which traps heat in the atmosphere, that contribute to climate change. Our summer of catastrophic bushfires is one example of what climate change can unleash.
A study in the United States found that $US 17 billion in social and health costs could be saved if one in four cars transitioned to electric. In Australia, an encouraging shift towards electrification is underway. Despite the lack of government support, the Electric Vehicle Council reports that sales of electric vehicles tripled in 2019 but this is from a very low base.
However, more cars are not the solution. If we are to reduce pollution and greenhouse gases, we will need investment in affordable, reliable public transport that runs with electric buses and trains, and provide safe pedestrian and cycle pathways for active transport.
For now, avoiding public transport may seem sensible, but when the pandemic is over, we should remember that pollution and climate change are killers too.
Dr Graeme McLeay and Associate Professor Vicki Kotsirilos AM are members of Doctors for the Environment Australia