Health statistics show there is no safe level of air pollution

In a paper published in the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Public Health, Professor Adrian Barnett, a Professor of Biostatistics in the School of Public Health, Queensland University of Technology, produces results that he claims show that there simply is no safe level of air pollution – health problems in the population rise in line with increases in average pollution levels.

Using Australian standards and data, Barnett shows that if air pollution levels in Australia were to rise to the maximums allowed by regulation, often considered by other environmental agencies and in the media reports to be ‘safe’ levels, there would be 6,000 more deaths across the country each year.  He says that the increase would hospitalize a further 20,700 people per year in Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane. The population of Australia is about 23 million and that of the three major cities mentioned is about 11 million.

In his published commentary Barnett cites recent government environmental reports for the East-West road link in Melbourne and for trains carrying coal in Queensland that conclude that predicted pollution increases were ‘safe’ levels and that therefore everything is fine. Barnett is quoted as stating that any new project that increases air pollution will always mean an increase in illness. He is calling on authorities to use thorough cost-benefit analyses of increased pollution levels in future environmental studies. The increased health problems could then be balanced against the economic and societal benefit of the new infrastructure or industry.

In the University press release Barnett is quoted as saying that “Changes also need to be made to the National Environment Protection Measures documentation and web site to prominently state that the standards should not be used to judge whether individual projects are safe or dangerous.”

GallonDaily agrees that government, health and environment agencies, as well as businesses, should stop presenting any pollution levels in any medium as being ‘safe’. There is not much in life that is ‘safe’ though some exposures are of lower risk while others are of higher risk. Lower risk does not equate to safety. Obviously societies should work towards lowering the risks of exposure to hazardous pollutants, wherever they are to be found. If Dr. Barnett’s conclusions are supported by future research it is conceivable that, in the future, elevated levels of air pollution will become as socially unacceptable as tobacco smoke has already become.

The article, but no abstract, is available – fee or subscription required – at http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/1753-6405.12264/abstract  An article about the article is available at https://www.qut.edu.au/about/news/news?news-id=79577

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