Cars Are Killing Us

Image: iStock

About 3,000 Australians die prematurely each year from outdoor air pollution, and our cars are a major component of that pollution, particularly in traffic congested areas.

Suburbs in Sydney and Melbourne and to a lesser extent other capital cities frequently do not meet air quality standards, and show a deterioration in air quality in recent years.

This pollution is likely to get worse as population increases and along with it congestion on our roads.

Graeme McLeay is an anaesthetist and member of Doctors for the Environment Australia.

Cars emit a toxic mix of carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, sulphur dioxide, ground level ozone, and particulate matter, some of it visible as smog or haze.

None of it is good for you. There is growing evidence that such pollution harms our health from the womb to the grave.

Respected medical journals are linking air pollution to underweight newborns, asthma and poor lung development in children, heart disease, stroke, and asthma and lung cancer in later life and even Alzheimer’s disease in elderly people living close to traffic corridors.

The California Children’s Health study followed children over a 10- year period. Children living or going to school close to traffic pollution experienced more respiratory disease such as asthma and bronchitis, and on days when high concentrations of ozone were present, absences from school. In adulthood, previously highly exposed children were found to have reduced lung function.

Children are especially susceptible to asthma and wheeze because of their relatively small airways and they breathe more air per body weight than adults.

Diesel vehicles are popular - I bought one some years ago - and they are the fastest growing fuel type in Australia. I would suspect that many consumers are unaware as I was when I bought my car that diesel is a major contributor of air pollution.

Diesel contains more particulates and nitrox compounds than those from petrol. The International Agency for Research on Cancer has declared diesel emissions carcinogenic.

Despite the evidence of harm, tougher vehicle emission standards which apply in other developed countries are still waiting to be introduced into Australia. Testing overseas has shown that even when cars have particulate filters to meet these higher standards, under real world stop-start driving conditions, diesel emissions remain a problem.

Paris, Madrid, Mexico City, and Athens are planning to ban diesel cars from entering the city, and there is a push to do the same in parts of the United Kingdom.

But diesel is not the only culprit fouling the air we breathe. The level of sulfur in petrol in Australia is making our fuel some of the dirtiest in the world, the current 50-150 parts per million is much higher than comparable economies, and it needs to be lowered to 10ppm.

Sulfur dioxide is a respiratory irritant and contributes particularly to child breathing difficulties.

Australia needs to clean up its act.

Image: iStock

A Ministerial Forum on Vehicle Emissions was established in October 2015 to coordinate a whole-of-government approach to addressing emissions from motor vehicles but the word health does not appear in their terms of reference and the Health Minister is not part of the forum.

Yet the World Health Organisation has identified outdoor air pollution as a major environmental health hazard.

The Forum on emissions has been considering vehicle emissions in three ways: improved vehicle efficiency standards which not only give better kilometres per litre but reduce greenhouse gases per litre; more stringent vehicle emission standards which reduce tailpipe emissions of harmful pollutants; and, in the latest round, fuel standards, which enable both of those objectives.

There is a win-win opportunity here to save lives through better air quality, reduce greenhouse emissions and, at the same time, gain productivity in improved mileage and reduced costs to transport.

Much more can be done by both government and individuals to give us air fit to breathe.

In a recent submission to the Ministerial Forum, medical group Doctors for the Environment Australia made a number of recommendations: higher vehicle emissions standards on all new cars in line with the best standards applying overseas; cleaner fuel standards for all fuel types; tax incentives to favour petrol cars over diesel; and tax incentives favouring hybrid and electric cars.

Better public transport, more walking paths and bike lanes, car sharing, urban planning and public warnings about air quality can all help to reduce the health burden. Idling of vehicles while stationary is banned in some overseas jurisdictions and turning off the engine while waiting is something simple everyone can do.

I for one will, among other things, ensure that my next car will be electric or hybrid!



    So, for those that say Electric Vehicles are just as bad because they rely on coal-fueled power stations for recharging, manufacture etc. the EV is the new paradigm. The sooner we transition away from those non-renewable technologies, the better.

      I was going to mention this however in the rant introduction it doesn't address this instead its "pollution is likely to get worse" doomsday.

      EV's have 18 moving parts. Combustion vehicles have over 2000. That alone is reason enough.

      I'd like to see hydrogen fuel cells rather than electric, based on the issues with battery manufacture, and the convenience of being able to "fill up", rather than sit and charge, but I agree that we need to move away from petrol and diesel fueled cars.

      Still, there's only so much point in doing this if we don't back it up with reliable, renewable power sources. Coal isn't exactly a lot better than petrol and diesel.

      The government should be investing in solar panels on every available surface. Offer to reinforce people's roofs and then put panels on them, with the power going direct to the grid. Invest in smarter, smaller, more efficient solar tech, so we can incorporate it everywhere. Put wind power turbines wherever possible, and again, invest in improving the tech.

      What I really don't understand is why every fossil fuel company on the planet didn't dive into renewable in the 80s, in preparation for the issues coming up now and in the future. They should have positioned themselves as power companies, and they would have been ready for a seamless transition into new technologies, without ever losing even a hint of their grip on the market.

        What I really don't understand is why every fossil fuel company on the planet didn't dive into renewable in the 80s, in preparation for the issues coming up now and in the future.

        Because they can; they don't need a reason.

        Yeah, I was of the same mind however, that was before Solar come on from behind. Still though, If they did manage to bring cheap reliable hydrogen to the market, tied together with fuel cell batteries, that would also be a game changer. They can now create hydrogen cheaply using Solar, so win, win.

        Portugal shows a great example of renewable energy, they have already ran electricity for a week in the whole country and they plan to do it permanently, even though they don't have much pollution, it will still help in the worldwide work.

    And what are these tools of the Fossil fuels industry, we have in Government ,doing about this NOTHING!
    They don't want to talk about pollution FULL STOP. As soon as you start talking about pollution and Climate Change then the need to switch to Renewables ASAP becomes more pressing and more obviously the right thing to do. When you factor in the true cost of fossil fuels, air pollution, health, water pollution, climate change impacts, etc they are vastly more expensive than Renewables.
    If we switch to EV's then it greatly improves our Energy Security as we no longer need to import Petrol or keep stockpiles. Not importing Petrol & Diesel helps with our trade balance.
    If the LNP actually had an energy plan they would be talking abut EV's a lot. EV's that are charged through a smart grid can also supply energy back to the grid at peak demand. LNP policy inaction on Energy & EV's means we will all suffer, both financially and physically.

      Factually incorrect.

      Total cost including cost to health and deaths are not at all what you think. Believe it or not those panels need resources from the ground. The impact and cost of getting those resources and shipping vast quantities all over the world cost lives and health. While they're getting better they still are not at the top. Sitting at the top (Cost of deaths/KWh) I believe is nuclear (yes including the fallout from fukushima). What little is needed from the ground makes vast amounts of energy which we dont even use all of it. Once we can harness all the mind bending large amount of energy from thorium reactors..well that would be a new dawn.

      Last edited 20/03/17 1:15 pm

        Care to share some facts on that, some studies, some modelling, research?

        Whenever someone harps on about deaths per kWhr, as if it was the only relevant metric, you know they're determined to push nuclear no matter what. A far more important figure is overall cost per kWhr, including:

        - all health costs (coal really sucks here, and nuclear suddenly looks a lot worse - but it's hard to correctly attribute cancers that don't appear for 20 years)
        - environment costs (often even harder to pin down, but the public still ends up paying for them - open-cut mines, climate change, Chernobyl and Fukushima etc)
        - building and decommissioning costs (also not cheap for nuclear)
        - capital risks (project failure, regulatory change, untried technology problems)
        - required support equipment (grid interconnects, energy storage, nuclear waste storage)
        - actual generation costs (often the smallest part, for nuclear and especially renewables)

        Nuclear most definitely has its place, and thorium generation is particularly interesting, but when you look at all the costs involved, there are a lot of cases where it's not even close to attractive. Likewise, renewables are ridiculously cheap for generation but make it up on equipment and support costs. Coal looks cheap but has huge external costs in health and climate. All these things have to be considered, and a wide mix is often best, combining strengths.

      I don't know what you want the government to do. Electronic vehicles are expensive. Short of paying or subsidising people to buy EVs there's not much they can do - and nobody will do that because it's absurdly expensive and the money is probably better spent reducing the number of cars on the road full stop.

        I guess I would first like Government to be Talking about this. They can't say they have an Energy plan that's credible unless this is part of the mix. You then just have to start small, with a few sweeteners, same as they have done across Europe to incentivise EV purchase. Build up from there.

          I see what you're saying, but I'm also suggesting that reducing the total number of vehicles in private transportation might end up being even more beneficial overall - as there's no need to keep dedicating resources to producing a car for each family unit (or whatever). A better, functional public transportation system that runs on renewable energy might be better than having loads of private EVs. Government policy isn't quite so black and white as "Incentivise it and watch the green come back!"

            A number of major car manufacturers have shared plans to create fleets of self-driving share vehicles - like a GoGet that comes to you. Share cars have already helped a lot of people avoid the need to own a car of their own, and this will lower that barrier even further by increased convenience and (eventually) decreased overall costs to run the fleet.

    Congestion and air pollution could be slightly reduced if employers let their employees work from home (or if it was a more common thing), ideally those who work in office roles like myself.

    I live 25 minutes from the City CBD where I work, I spend about 4 hours each day on the commute as there is no access to public transport in my area being a new estate, my role and many others can easily be done from home.

    I wish working from home was more common here.

    Cars are killing some humans, all humans are killing the one planet we have to live on... seems legit.

    Australia needs to clean up its act.

    No, our politicians need to get their act into gear first; if they can't even organise an explosion in a nitro factory how can they tackle more complex tasks?

    Neither of the majors want to do anything about the matter because it requires effort they are not willing to exert.

    It would go a long way to improve the public transport but both sides are just content with building more roads and calling it a day before 11 AM.

    Just look at Melbourne. How the hell can a city not have a rail line to its own freaking airport?! The public have been pushing for one for decade and it still ain't gonna happen.

    Doesn't help the Andrews is the main horseman of his own apocalypse down there either.

    Cars contribute only an eighth to the overal air pollution. That's a NASA/NOAA research figure.

    Look up Westconnex, building unfiltered exhaust stacks nears schools, hardly taller than the surrounding buildings!

    Hang on....I've been led to believe cyclists are the problem. Can't we get back to talking about running them off the road and how they mame and murder motorists?!?

    Funny how no one ever mentions cargo ships. They run on the dirtiest fuel there is because it's cheap but because of that they exude vast amounts of pollution. One cargo ship puts out the same pollution of 50 million cars and there are 100,000 cargo ships floating around our oceans. Add on top of that all the other ships cruising around polluting the shit out of our air but no, don't mention that because we want our cheap goods no matter how much pollution it creates.

      Yeah cargo ships put out ridiculous amounts of sulphur from their cheap bunker oil, but the fine particulates emitted by cars all around us are a much bigger health problem, and they emit more CO2 as well.

        I think Europe wants to ban Diesel cars because of the pollution they put out.

          Indeed, diesels put out a lot more fine particulates, which turned out to be a much bigger health problem than we thought.

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