Why air quality is the (sometimes smelly) other elephant in the room in Australia

In the past few weeks the costs associated with poor air quality in India and Europe have been published in terms of health effects, lost productivity and ultimately, mortality. In a previous blog I discussed Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s response to Delhi being pronounced the world’s worst city in terms of air pollution in a World Health Organisation (WHO) report.

On 29 April 2015 it was reported that air pollution costs Europe $1.6 trillion every year (equivalent to 10% of Europe’s GDP) in early deaths and disease according to WHO. The $1.6 trillion is comprised of 600,000 premature deaths and the costs associated with the sicknesses of hundreds of thousands of people (largely from preventable causes). The sources identified include small particles from the exhaust of diesel vehicles and nitrogen dioxide which can impair breathing in vulnerable people (e.g. asthmatics).


The WHO report was based on figures from 2010 (the last full data year) and included all of Europe and non-European Union (EU) States such as Norway and Switzerland. It showed that in a number of eastern European countries, the cost of poor air quality exceeds 10% of their respective GDPs. The United Kingdom, Germany and Italy are ranked in the top 10 based purely on economic terms.

In London, the European Union is set to levy fines on Local Governments in which air quality exceeds EU standards. Air pollution was the biggest environmental risk in Europe and 482,000 deaths were attributed to heart and respiratory diseases alone, according to the report. According to WHO, 25% of the deaths or sickness of all European residents can be linked to environmental pollution.

In March 2015, the European Environment Agency reported that hundreds of thousands of people could die prematurely in the next 20 years from air pollution as a result of Government inaction.


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I have not seen any recent work in Australia which has examined the effects of air pollution on health or productivity, however I did find a recent piece on the cost of heatwaves to Australian workplaces. On May 5 2015 it was reported that the annual cost was $7.92 billion in lost productivity and absenteeism according to Charles Darwin University research.

Of the 1,726 working adults across Australia surveyed as part of the study, 70% had worked less efficiently at some point in the past year owing to heat. An additional 7% missed at least one day of work as a result of higher temperatures. The surveys were conducted in May and October 2014 and covered the previous 12 months. It is worth noting that 2013 was Australia’s warmest year on record, and 2014 was estimated to be Australia’s third warmest year on record.


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While the above Australian research is to be applauded, I question why similar attention has not been focused on air pollution in Australia and in particular the actions Governments have implemented to manage and ultimately reduce it and the associated environmental and health costs. I would like to raise an issue that I am passionate about and which I think you the reader will find interesting.

For my PhD I conducted a study of personal exposure to benzene in petrol in Western Australia. Benzene does the job that lead used to do in petrol before the latter was found to be such a big problem around the world. My study recruited people that were not exposed to benzene as a result of their occupation or from smoking.

In addition to monitoring participants’ personal exposure, I monitored benzene concentrations at petrol bowsers, along freeways and in multi-storey carparks. Suffice it to say the highest concentrations were found at the bowsers which may surprise some people given that refuelling may only take 1 minute or so (depending of course on the capacity of the vehicle fuel tank). I suspect that many people just fill up their vehicle’s fuel tank without giving much of a thought to the emissions that are around them.


Benzene is an aromatic chemical- it smells- and it is basically one of the first chemicals you may smell when filling up the fuel tank because it is so light and volatilises so quickly (it is also present in the vapour you may also sometimes see around that fuel tank). Throughout most of North America and Europe, laws have existed for decades which mandate equipment being attached to the bowser hose that is essentially a vacuum. When you insert the nozzle from the bowser into your vehicle’s fuel tank, the vacuum forms a seal around the nozzle and tank so that your exposure is greatly minimised (if there is any exposure at all).

Like many chemicals, benzene has acute and chronic exposure symptoms, and it has been known to be carcinogenic (very harmful) since the 19th Century. The acute (short term) exposure health effects range from dizziness and euphoria to vomiting and loss of consciousness, and the chronic (long term) exposure health effect is leukemia (based on exposure to very high concentrations over many years in occupational settings). I need to point out here that benzene has been phased out in many of the industries in which it was used (e.g. in chemical manufacture) as a result of the link with leukemia.

As a result of finding that the highest concentrations were at petrol bowsers, the last stage of my research was a risk assessment which sought to determine what added cancer risk refuelling your vehicle once a week posed over a lifetime. I used a World Health Organisation (WHO) risk assessment methodology which based the risk on a lifetime of 70 years, and found that the excess lifetime risk of refuelling once per week over 70 years was approximately double that of commuting in Perth.

That is the end of the “sciencey” bit- you can relax. The “so what” is this- in the nearly 8 years since my PhD was awarded and I recommended that vacuum systems (officially called vapour recovery systems) be fitted to all petrol bowsers in Australia, not one State or Territory Government has mandated it. One State is looking at vapour recovery from underground fuel tanks, however they will have little impact on the personal exposure of each person who is refuelling their vehicle.

I would urge you the reader to think about this and share it with as many of your family, friends and work colleagues as possible. Ultimately, it is the inaction of State Governments that has enabled this situation, so I would also urge you to discuss this with your local Member of Parliament and State Minister(s) and ask everyone you share this with to do the same. It is only through enough people raising their concerns that this will be changed for the better and vapour recovery systems will be mandated on the petrol bowser hoses.



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