Clearing the Air

Particulate matter, or PM for short, are small particles that float around in the air, the air that surrounds us, the air that we see through and the air that we breathe. PM takes many different forms, near coastal areas sea salt is typically the most prevalent PM in the air. In highly urbanised areas PM from cars and trucks features highly in measurements, while in rural towns PM from wood burning fires that heat homes is the greatest threat. Probably the most notorious PM in Australia, certainly the one that has received the most publicity over the years is asbestos fibres. But something of a surprise to me was the number one cause of airborne PM in Australia, dust from coal.

Not so much of a surprise is that the report details that some types of PM are much more harmful to humans than others. Small air born particles from asbestos cause mesothelioma, PM from vehicle exhausts can be cancerous as can coal dust, while soil dust can cause respiratory issues for many. Pollen from plants and flowers, both in nature and from farming is a major source of allergies such as hay fever, while at the safe end of the PM scale is sea salt that is yet to show any serious health effects.

Of course governments have taken action over the years to improve air quality and in turn improve public health outcomes. The use of asbestos was banned in all products from 2004, exhaust emission standards for cars were introduced in the early 1970’s and for trucks from 1995 and have progressively grown more stringent over the past two decades. This study highlights the major sources of harmful PM pollution, those that need to be addressed in coming years. Those PM sources identified in the NEPC impact study as being in the “low hanging fruit” category include, off-highway vehicles such as tractors, forklifts, diesel trains, generators and marine engines, small power engines including lawn mowers, outboard motors and trail bikes, these make up 13% of PM emissions. Currently these engines have no exhaust emission requirements in Australia, but are required in countries such as the USA and Europe to limit exhaust emissions. Wood fire smoke from home heating and hazard reduction burns accounts for 8%, while PM from coal dust accounts for 63%. These percentages are for PM10 in the Sydney basin, other regions may have a different make-up.

While all on road motor vehicles account for just 4 per cent of PM pollution, TIC has one other to add to the above list, pre 1995 trucks in urban areas. These older trucks that make up almost 40% of the urban truck population, have no exhaust emission standards. These trucks pump out PM at a rate sixty (60) times that of trucks built after 2007. That means that just one pre 1995 truck emits the same exhaust PM as sixty (60) post 2007 trucks. The levels of exhaust particulates emitted from trucks in the urban environment could be significantly reduced and public health improved by modernising the urban truck fleet.

TIC members have been proactive in bring the latest global exhaust emission technology to Australia, in many cases well before it has been mandated by the Australian government. In fact two TIC member companies are currently offering trucks with Euro 6 engine technology, even though this emission standard will not likely become a legal requirement in Australia until beyond 2020. History has shown that market forces alone will not renew the Australian truck fleet at a rate that will see fewer pre 1995 trucks operating on our cities roads. TIC has been working with all levels of government to highlight this situation, and to develop plans to address it. Government involvement, through effective incentives for buying new, safe and PM clean trucks, is essential if we are to clear the air.

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