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Air pollution: how dangerous is poor quality air and do we need the building codes to raise the bar?

Children protesting the Westconnex. Photo: No  WestConnex.
Children protesting the Westconnex. Photo: No WestConnex.

Air pollution has hit the headlines again. A report this week for Environmental Justice Australia by Newcastle University researcher Dr Ben Ewald shows emissions from coal-fired plants kill 279 people per year in NSW. 

Another report was released at the end of last week by the Australian Conservation Foundation on the most polluted postcodes in Australia. The Hunter Valley was shown as one of the worst places to live partly due to air pollution from the mining, transporting and burning of coal.

The elephant in the loungeroom continues to be, however, vehicle emissions choking up our cities, and the circus the elephant belongs to is the ongoing failure of planning, building and transport policies to take an integrated look at ensuring our air is fit to breathe.

The ACF report uses data from the National Pollutant Inventory to present the level of pollution in the atmosphere for any given postcode. However, this data does not include smaller industrial emitters that are not mandated to report and that choose not to opt-in voluntarily.

So it’s not entirely reliable to give you an idea how at risk your own home or workplace might be from industrial emissions, and it gives you no idea of how exposed you are to vehicle emissions.

Chair of Save Our Suburbs Dr Tony Recsei, a retired environmental consultant who specialised in contaminated sites, told The Fifth Estate the ACF report was “misleading”. 

“It took the easy option” using the NPI data, he says. 

Vehicle emissions data is available for some locations. The NSW EPA, for example, has monitoring stations that collect the levels of pollutants including nitrous oxide and airborne particulates.

Recsei says vehicle pollution is actually more of a concern than industrial emissions, as vehicle emissions cover a greater area.

Impacts on hearts, minds and bodies

Studies have shown that air pollutants increase the likelihood and severity of conditions including asthma, emphysema and low birth weight in babies.

Recent Monash research has also established a link between exposure to air pollution and the risk of children developing autism. It showed risks of developing Autism Spectrum Disorder go up by 78 per cent where children are exposed to vehicle exhausts, industrial emissions and other sources of outdoor pollution.

Associate Professor Yuming Guo, from Monash University’s School of Public Health and Preventive Medicine, says global air pollution is rapidly becoming worse and there is no safe level of exposure.

“Even exposure to very small amounts of fine particulate matter have been linked to pre-term births, delayed learning, and a range of serious health conditions, including heart disease,” Guo says.

“The developing brains of young children are more vulnerable to toxic exposures in the environment and several studies have suggested this could impact brain function and the immune system. 

“These effects could explain the strong link we found between exposure to air pollutants and ASD, but further research is needed to explore the associations between air pollution and mental health more broadly.”

Other recent research for the Centre for Energy, Air Pollution and Heath Research has established a possible link between air pollution and Type 2 Diabetes, one of the largest public health concerns of our times.

The research was led by Associate Professor Fay Johnston at the University of Tasmania’s Menzies Institute for Medical Research. It examined the medical reasons behind almost 400,000 ambulance call-outs in three Australian states between 2009 and 2014 and their links to air quality. 

The study found that increases in PM 2.5 air pollution particles were associated with an increased risk of ambulance call-outs for low blood glucose levels, irregular heartbeats, heart failure, fainting, asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and croup. 

The association with call-outs for low blood glucose in people with diabetes was a consistent finding across all states.

Air quality affects respiration but is also implicated in cardiovascular conditions and diabetes

“Air quality is commonly, but erroneously, thought of as a respiratory issue. That is, affecting mainly our airways,” Johnston says.

“But the findings in this study support the strong evidence that worsening air quality can lead to cardiovascular conditions, and the emerging evidence of its links with diabetes.

“Air pollution is known to promote inflammation and be linked with higher blood glucose, but this is the first report of a possible association with low blood glucose” 

Why big roads and tiny particles can be a big problem 

The smallest pollution particles, PM 2.5 can be absorbed deep into the lungs and enter the bloodstream, where they can also cause blood clots and heart attacks.

This was one of the factors Melbourne University associate professor and Peter McCallum Cancer Centre respiratory physician Dr Lou Irving outlined in a presentation about the pollution impacts of the Westgate Tunnel project in Melbourne.

When air quality goes down, the number of heart attacks goes up.

No safe lower limits for pollutants from tunnel

He points out that the health impacts assessment (HIA) carried out for the tunnel project did not take into account research over the past five years that “shows adverse effects of traffic pollution below current government standards, and with no safe lower limit

He also notes that the HIA averaged potential effects over a large area. This is likely to “underestimate adverse health effects on people in the area directly impacted by the tunnel, particularly if there are “hotspots” of pollution.”

The HIA also did not consider mitigation strategies, an oversight he corrects with a number of suggestions including tunnel stack filtration; roadside barriers and vegetation; greater setbacks of homes from roads; mandating reduced idling near schools; and efficient traffic flows.

Recsei also identifies the stop-start nature of city traffic, particularly as density leads to greater congestion, as a major issue.

Engines create higher levels of pollution when stopping and starting during a journey, he says, as opposed to travelling at optimum speed continuously.

One of the arguments for density is that people will use public transport instead of cars, however, this is not proving tgenerally to be the case.

He says that it is either not suitable for people’s needs, or it is not adequately available. 

One oversight The Fifth Estate has noticed in much of the commentary around transport provision is an overwhelming focus on the needs of workers and those attending formal study such as university.

But as any parent would know, with children comes a chauffeur’s cap and a neverending list of places to get to and people to see.

An article earlier this month in The Conversation highlighted the lack of understanding of vehicle use for ferrying children around to activities, and the need for considering children and their needs in developing sustainable mobility solutions.

A story from the WestConnex coalface

Air quality impacts are one of the concerns articulated by opponents of Sydney’s WestConnex project. Already there have been spikes reported in Nitrous Oxide concentrations beyond safe levels, along with dust events from construction activities.

It’s not only the construction phase is an issue, however, as to keep the tunnels safe for motorists, there need to be extraction systems for the vehicle exhaust fumes generated – and those fumes are vented above the tunnel and into the atmosphere of the city.

One of the hotspots in terms of concerns is Haberfield Primary School. A parent who was interested in sending their child to the school told The Fifth Estate that due to the pollution concerns from WestConnex during construction and operation, they have decided to send their child elsewhere.

“It broke my heart,” she says. 

While Haberfield has an excellent reputation, one of the largest libraries and open green space with trees in the playground, she says her child’s long-term lung health matters most.

The takeaways for the property sector

As UNSW researchers Christine Cowie and Guy Marks have observed in The Conversation, air pollution is something that needs to be considered by developers, planners and property buyers.

ANU Professor and practising GP Dr Peter Tait, who also holds a Masters degree in climate change, told The Fifth Estate we “absolutely need a networked systems-thinking approach to the issue of air quality in cities.”

“There are a whole lot of things we need to be thinking about in this space,” he says.

They include bringing in vehicle emissions standards, something Australia lags behind in compared with the majority of the developed world.

EVs are an obvious part of the solution thoughnot entirely pollution-free, he says.

The tyres still cause airborne particulates from dust, road materials and anything that’s landed on the road to enter the surrounding air, he explains. 

We also need to be thinking about setbacks for residential buildings located near high-traffic roads. 

Design of our buildings and the systems within them also need some deeper thought, as the air outside is directly linked to the quality of the air inside, particularly where natural ventilation is used. 

We need indoor air standards incorporated into building codes

Director of University of Sydney IEQ Lab, Professor Richard de Dear, told The Fifth Estate that with the focus on energy use in our buildings we “tend to lose sight of what all that energy is for.”

Energy is used to maintain a habitable indoor environment, he says.

When thinking about our indoor environments, we need to be asking “are we getting value from the energy investment?” because energy inputs have IEQ outputs.

 “We do need to keep sight on the other side of the [energy] equation,” de Dear says.

The National Construction Code has no firm rules around indoor environment quality. 

There has however been a resurgence of interest in IEQ through certification schemes such as WELL.

De Dear says that just as there is a national strategy to get energy efficiency embedded in the NCC to give it a national scale, there needs to be a similar approach to IEQ.

There is already a tool for the job – NABERS IEQ – and he says it is “not a huge leap of logic” that it should follow the same trajectory as NABERS Energy in terms of uptake.

The key will be making disclosure of NABERS IEQ ratings mandatory, he says, just as it was for NABERS Energy.

So what can be done at a building scale? 

De Dear says there are ways to ensure indoor environment quality doesn’t mirror poor outdoor air, for one, if  it is possible to draw ventilation air from “outside the urban canyon” and get it into apartments.

A team of researchers has prototyped a system of roof-mounted windcatchers for a mid-rise building, using wind tunnel testing and a scale model, and found the idea works, he explains.

The reason for testing such a system is two-fold, to deliver enhanced air quality to apartments and to improve energy efficiency by reducing reliance on mechanical airconditioning for thermal comfort.

The system would require a modified building system that directed air from the wind catchers into apartments.

Standard HVAC systems in apartments generally do not improve air quality, as split systems simply recirculate the air already in the dwelling.

That means if there are high levels of VOCs from furnishings or finishes, the VOCs stay in the air. If the air has pollution from traffic outside, that stays in the air.

There are units available for purifying indoor air that can be installed, de Dear says, however, for a strata apartment, retrofitting the kind of air filtration equipment used for Passive House buildings might be near to impossible, as it would require works that could involve the building fabric.

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Comments

One Response to “Air pollution: how dangerous is poor quality air and do we need the building codes to raise the bar?”

  • Sue Gay says:

    We need to look closely at the air pollution in the MacArthur area after this weeks announcement of the mass Development set for this with Air Pollution been overlooked. Any help you can offer would be appreciated.

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