Pollution from petrol and diesel is surprisingly bad for us

Ever walked along Parramatta Rd, Military Rd, or another one of Sydney’s arterials and copped a lungful of exhaust fumes? Walked past a bus stop just as a bus accelerates away? 

It turns out that the fumes from these vehicles is much worse for us than previously thought.

An extrapolation of a peer reviewed study from New Zealand has increased the estimate of deaths due to vehicle pollution from about 2,000 a year to more than 11,000 a year. This is ten times the national road toll due to traffic violence/collisions.

The researchers also estimate vehicle pollution may cause: 12,210 cardiovascular hospitalisations per year, 6,840 respiratory hospitalisations per year, and 66,000 active asthma cases per year.

The expert position statement can be viewed here, and is endorsed by the Australia Chronic Disease Prevention Alliance, which includes the Heart Foundation, Cancer Council, Kidney Health Australia, Diabetes Australia, Stroke Foundation, and the Lung Foundation of Australia.

This is the Background from this position statement:

Although adverse health effects caused by traffic pollution have been known for two decades, recent evidence reveals a far greater magnitude of health impacts than previously considered. These impacts include premature deaths, a range of cardio- respiratory diseases including lung cancer, childhood asthma, adverse birth outcomes and diabetes.

In most urban areas, road traffic emissions which include dust, non-tailpipe and tailpipe emissions are the most widespread source of anthropogenic (man-made) air pollution that the public are chronically exposed to (Khreis, Nieuwenhuijsen et al. 2020). Tailpipe emissions include tiny respirable particles of black carbon and toxic gases that are released at ground level in locations where people spend much of their time, on roads, footpaths and in buildings along busy roads.

Currently, there are no robust estimates for the health impacts in Australia. Quantifying the health and economic effects of traffic emissions is critical given current federal discussions on vehicle regulations, fuel content and trajectories of decarbonising thetraffic fleet. Robust estimates that align with current evidence are required to provide policymakers with the necessary data to weigh up the costs of inaction against the costs of action and the benefits that will follow.

The past decade of international evidence highlights there are two key pollutants to consider when estimating the health impacts of air pollution. Fine particulate matter (PM2.5) and nitrogen dioxide (NO2).

Better walking, biking, and electric public transport could improve air quality very quickly. Electric cars and trucks will also improve our air. A recent study from California found that even a 2% fleet of electric cars led to “a measurable drop in annual average NO2“, and a 3% drop in asthma-related emergency hospital visits.

It would be expected that modal shift to walking and biking would have the same positive impact on NO2, while also increasing physical activity, making transport more equitable, accessible, and fun.