Urgent call for real-time and consistent air quality reporting as parts of Australia remain blanketed in smoke
- Asthma Australia calls on Environment Ministers to implement real-time and consistent air quality reporting of PM2.5 and 10 nationally
- Real-time monitoring of PM2.5 and PM10 is something governments can do immediately to protect public health against air pollution from fire smoke
Air pollution in New South Wales is a public health emergency, with much of the state burning and air quality index levels reaching 11 times higher than levels considered hazardous by the World Health Organisation.
Bushfire smoke is particularly harmful to your health, containing high concentrations of very fine particulate matter PM2.5. These fine particles make their way into your lungs and bloodstream causing systemic effects on respiratory, cardiovascular systems and other organs.
Babies, pregnant women, the elderly and those with asthma or pre-existing respiratory and cardiac conditions are at higher risk.
It’s not until you feel the physical effects of air pollution like gasping for breath or experiencing burning eyes, that you appreciate how essential clean air is for your health.
What’s deeply concerning is that all Australian states and territories, have different approaches to sharing air quality information. There is no national requirement for real-time air quality reporting of the harmful PM2.5 fine particle pollutants found in bushfire smoke. Bushfire smoke fluctuates rapidly. Information and advice based on average concentrations of PM2.5 over a 24 hour period is not helpful. Side effects can be experienced as soon as pollution levels begin to increase – they do not wait 24 hours.
People at risk, organisations, schools and businesses have no access to timely, accurate and reliable information to make informed decisions to stay safe. For children cooped up in day care centres or at home with asthma, real-time data would make a significant difference.
For organisations trying to gauge whether it is safe for outdoor workers to continue working, real-time data would empower them to make the right decisions to protect the health and wellbeing of their employees.
For the many sporting associations across the country, real-time data would empower them to plan whether to proceed with or postpone training sessions and competitions.
There is no safe level of PM2.5. It is critical reporting data provides useful information to guide the serious decisions people and organisations need to make to protect public health.
While especially dangerous, even life-threatening, to people with asthma and respiratory problems, PM2.5 impacts even people who previously did not have such health problems.
Act now to protect our communities
We call on all state and territory Environment Ministers and the Federal Government to implement real-time and consistent air quality reporting of PM2.5 and PM10 across our country.
The current standards dictate a 24-hour rolling average of PM2.5 and PM10 reporting. This public health emergency has highlighted the inadequacy of this standard and brings to light the need for real-time reporting.
People in high stakes health categories cannot rely on data that is not a reflection of current conditions.
This significant lag in reporting is putting the health of people and whole communities at risk.
Our people simply do not have credible information on hand, to avoid certain situations particularly as air quality conditions are changing rapidly.
As we expect to experience more bushfires this season, and more frequent and severe weather events that will impact air quality, upgrading to real-time PM2.5 and 10 reporting is imperative.
This upgrade will become a critical tool for responding to adverse events such as the one currently being experienced by millions of people to build community resilience.
For pollutants relevant to asthma health, urgent upgrades to a real-time reporting system for PM2.5 and 10 are required.
Tasmania and Victoria already report hourly averages for PM2.5 and PM10. It is feasible and it is cost effective considering the millions of people who would benefit – and it something all Australian should have access to now.
Who sets the standards?
Air quality standards and reporting on levels of air pollution across Australia is set by the National Environment Protection Council’s (NEPC) National Environment and Protection Measure for Ambient Air Quality, June 1998.
While in 2011, NEPC reviewed ambient air quality for standards of particulate matter, communities need Government to act faster given the ongoing threat of bushfires and hazardous conditions across Australia are set to continue. The regulatory framework based on 24-hour averages data does not meet the needs of people sensitive to rapid changes in air quality typical of bushfire smoke episodes.