Interview: Cleaner air for Australians
Policy priorities for the 2022 Federal election 

16 March 2022

On 16th March 2022 Prof Graeme Zosky, Chief Investigator of CAR spoke to ABC Northern Tasmania about our Policy document: Cleaner Air for Australians, policy priorities for the 2022 federal election. The transcript is found below. 

Kylie: Now, when you think of life priorities would you say that air quality is something that you find important. Well, I'm talking about that next. With a professor from the Menzies research Institute, so stick around. Breathe in, breathe out. There's nothing quite like a lungful of Tasmanian air but even though we do get plenty of fresh air in Tasmania, Professor Graeme Zosky, who is deputy director of the Menzies Institute for Medical Research wants us to be thinking about air pollution and how it impacts our health in the lead-up to the federal election. As well as working at Menzies is a chief investigator at the Centre for Air pollution, Energy and Health Research, and they've just released their election policy priorities. Welcome to the drive program. Professor Graeme Zosky. So tell us about the health impacts of air pollution in Australia obviously specifically in Tasmania but let's talk about that. 

 

Graeme: Yes, sure, I think the one of the challenges that we have in Australia is that international compared to international standards, our air quality is actually fairly good. The problem is that leads to the misconception that air pollution isn’t a problem in the Australian context. So we know that annually nearly 2700 people die as a result of exposure to air pollution and costs the economy over $6 billion annually. 

 

Kylie: So Tasmania has some very cold winters, not as cold as some parts of the world, but a lot of people love wood heaters. I know lots of people that have wood heaters but in many cases they are impacting health. In particular in certain communities aren't they?

 

Graeme:  yes and I know I agree Kylie. There’s a lot in of the ambience of sitting in front of a nice warm wood fire in the winter. The problem is that we know that poor operation of Wood heaters creates emissions that impact our health. And we know for example in Tasmania that nearly 70 people died per year as a result of emissions from wood-fired heaters and we know which areas are the worst.

 

Kylie : My understanding is that areas around Launceston are some of the worst areas but have you got any analysis on the worst zones?

 

Graeme:   any area where the smoke tends to get trapped in valleys or in temperature inversions are hot spots, so the Launceston area is a good example. The Derwent valley is also a good example so in areas where we have smoke that becomes trapped during winter. As a result of wood fire heaters they are the hotspots for these health effects 

 

Kylie: so what particularly that we can do about that should be people be thinking about the kind of limiters they have, you know, those special little air Vents are there certain things you like to see done to ensure those health impacts are reduced?


Graeme:   What we're calling for a strong national action on wood heaters. The problem is at the moment wood heaters or emissions from Wood heaters are managed at the local council level and they are managed under the guise of a nuisance legislation as opposed to the health legislation. So what we're calling for a strong national action to reduce the health burden of Wood heaters, through the establishment of a national fund that would support the replacement of wood heaters and also education programs to improve systems or improve ways that people can understand to burn their wood more cleanly and reduce the emissions that wood-fired heaters produce

 

Kylie: Now an election priority of the Centre for Air pollution, Energy and Health Research, I believe, is to introduce subsidy schemes to support those populations who you mentioned a moment ago are vulnerable to air pollution. So can you describe a bit more about how that scheme might work? Would you give people money directly or what would you do? 

 

Graeme:   what we are proposing in terms of protecting vulnerable people is to subsidise access to a HEPA filters. HEPA filters air purifiers are one of the few things that we know that can reduce your exposure to air pollution. If you are a vulnerable individual so for example on days where air pollution is very high, the best way to avoid health effects, is to avoid that Air pollution. The problem is, even with the most well sealed modern home eventually that air pollution will seep into the indoor spaces so we're advocating for a subsidy scheme for people who are vulnerable. That is people who are elderly or who have pre-existing medical conditions such as a respiratory or cardiovascular condition, to have subsidised access to a HEPA filters to improve the air quality in their homes. 

 

Kylie: Now that has got me interested in the fact that as a result of COVID a, lot of workplaces and homes now have aired purified, is that the same? Is that what a HEPA filter is or are they something different?

 

Graeme: so there are challenges in that there are different kinds of air purifiers some better than others. We know that, unfortunately, some of the air purifiers that exist also produce ozone, which we know is detrimental to health. So, we’re advocating for air purifiers that contain HEPA filters and directly filter the particulates out of the air.

 

Kylie: Ok, now someone's texted into the program. Andrew in Kettering, saying one of the biggest problems with wood heaters, is that people burn greenwood. Is that a bigger problem than say dry wood?  

 

Graeme: Yes, absolutely. We know that burning dry wood reduces the emissions. We also know that burning the wood at a high temperature, reduces the emissions so we should be avoiding greenwood and avoiding doing a slow, low temperature burn that generates the most amount of smoke 

 

Kylie: is part of air pollution that we see on a day to day basis in Australia from roads as well? You know, a lot of car travel in big cities and industry, not just wood heaters. 

 

Graeme: Yeah, absolutely. So we know that vehicle emissions are the second highest emitter of air pollutants in the Australian context. Unfortunately wood heaters are number one, so to put it in context in the Sydney metropolitan area wood heaters contribute around 60% of the air pollution that's admitted on annual basis, and only 6% of the residents in that area actually have a wood heater and motor vehicles are a distant second in terms of the amount of air pollution they produce

 

Kylie:  is one of your priorities to try and regulate air pollution coming from heavy industry?

 

Graeme: We have a broad priority, around air quality. At the moment the air quality is governed by what are known as the National environmental protection measures and they set thresholds that jurisdictions- so states- have to report on. The problem is that implies that there is a safe level of air pollution, an unfortunately we know that there is no safe level of air pollution and just, yeah, go ahead.

 

Kylie:  Sorry you finish that go, yeah.

 

Graeme: What we're advocating for is a process that involves continuous reductions in emissions as opposed to setting a threshold which implies that any poor air quality is safe

 

Kylie:  now electric cars. Electric vehicles going forward- are they part of the solution? They are definitely becoming more popular. It would seem you see more of them on the roads. 

 

Graeme: Absolutely, and we are arguing for increased investment in the policies that incentivise the uptake of electric vehicles. We've seen that in other countries around the world. It has been incredibly effective at reducing exposure to air pollution, 

 

Kylie:  Professor Graeme Zosky, great having a chat thanks for joining the program. 

 

Graeme: Thanks for your time called appreciate it.

Kylie:  Professor Graeme Zosky is the deputy director of the Menzies Institute for medical research.