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Proposed air toxics limits dangerously weak, warn health experts

A coalition of health experts and environmental groups says proposals to tighten airshed standards for three key pollutants don't go far enough.

Federal, state and territory governments are consulting on new airshed standards for nitrogen dioxide (NO2), sulfur dioxide (SO2) and ozone (see background here).

The new standards would be adopted through amendments to the National Environment Protection Measure (NEPM) on air quality.

However, groups including Melbourne University's Lung Health Research Centre, the Climate and Health Alliance, Doctors for the Environment, and Environmental Justice Australia say the proposed standards are inadequate.

They argue the draft standards will still result in unacceptably high levels of air pollution-related health problems and early deaths.

Doctors for the Environment spokesperson Dr Ben Ewald told Footprint the NEPM should be "a tool for driving improvement in air quality".

Instead, governments have proposed standards that are already being met, he said.

Important health and economic ramifications

The revised airshed standards will have significant ramifications for fossil fuel power stations and industry, as they will influence the point-source emission limits deemed acceptable by regulators.

Tighter air pollution standards can also be used to manage the closure of coal-fired power stations, or force them to install better pollution control technology.

The choice of standards will also have important ramifications for human health.

The federal government says the health effects arising from exposure to current concentrations of ozone, NO2 and SO2 in urban areas alone totalled between $562 million and $2.4 billion over 2010 to 2014.

A Victorian analysis has estimated health costs of air pollution from the state's electricity sector alone totalled $600 million in 2018.

Thousands of premature deaths

The health and environment groups say evidence shows air pollution contributes to more than 3,000 premature deaths each year in Australia.

Health effects in hotspot areas, such as power generation regions, industrial areas and near major motorways, are a particular concern, they warn.

The groups urge ministers to set a one-hour air quality standard for SO2 of 60 parts per billion (ppb), which is stronger than the draft proposal of an initial 100ppb one-hour standard, falling to 75ppb in 2025.

The existing one-hour SO2 standard is 200ppb.

The groups say the 24-hour SO2 standard should be 8ppb, which is less than half the proposed 24-hour standard of 20ppb and well below the current daily standard of 80ppb.

For NO2, the groups recommend a one-hour standard of 72ppb, down from the government-proposed standard of 90ppb (which would drop to 80ppb in 2025) and the current standard of 120ppb.

The groups advocate that the annual standard for NO2 should be 9ppb, instead of the 19ppb proposed by ministers (falling to 15ppb in 2025) and significantly below the existing level of 30ppb.

They also propose a one-hour standard for ozone of 70ppb, down from the existing standard of 100ppb.

The groups also say air monitoring should be expanded to ensure risks near major emission sources, such as power stations, industrial facilities and freeways, are taken into account.

In a recommendation that aligns with calls from Victoria's Auditor-General (see background here), the groups also call for air quality monitoring data to be made public in real time.

They also want compliance obligations and enforcement mechanisms introduced, which currently aren't included in the air NEPM.

The groups are expected to next week release a formal position statement containing their recommendations.

Federal, Air pollution, odour

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