Australians ‘at risk’ from delayed review of coal toxins

The health of Australians is at risk because of stalled government action on two dangerous pollutants mainly emitted by coal-fired power stations, environmental experts have warned.

Legally binding safe levels for dangerous toxins were last set in 1998 and are now outdated, experts say.

A process to review air pollution standards for two toxins – sulphur dioxide (SO2) and oxides of nitrogen (NOx) – began two years ago, however, Environmental Justice Australia (EJA) has warned the process has stalled due to delays.

The two pollutants are usually associated with the burning of coal at power stations and vehicle emissions, and have harmful impacts on human health.

They can cause inflammation of the respiratory tract, wheezing, and lung damage, and pose a particular risk to people with asthma. In severe cases they have been associated with developmental problems in children and even death.

EJA says the current standards for SO2 are well below those recommended by global standards, allowing exposure at about 10 times the World Health Organisation’s recommended standards, according to the EJA.

The multi-government review is now not expected to be finalised until 2020, which EJA described as “unacceptable”.

“The process for setting national standards is failing Australian communities. Australians are being exposed to unacceptable levels of pollutants causing death and disease while governments go through their bureaucratic nightmare processes,” an EJA spokesperson said.

Air pollution is responsible for 3,000 deaths each year and has a mortality cost of between $11 billion and $24 billion, according to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare.