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Chapter 14: Air quality

Summary

14.1 Development of information systems to improve air quality monitoring and reporting are a good example of coordinated efforts to support improved national natural disaster arrangements and resilience.

14.2 Natural disasters, such as storms and bushfires, can have a significant impact on air quality. Poor air quality has a range of health impacts – respiratory, mental health and cardiovascular – and can result in death. Clear and consistent information and health advice can help people manage the risks associated with poor air quality, supporting greater resilience to adverse conditions and health outcomes.

14.3 However, the presentation of air quality information is not consistent across Australia. In some areas of Australia, air quality is reported on 24 hour averages, which is of limited utility when, during a major incident, the air quality can change rapidly. Variations in reporting and the health advice to the community took on national significance when up to 80% of the population was affected by poor air quality during the 2019‑2020 bushfires.

14.4 Governments, medical groups and researchers have recognised the need for improvements, particularly in the provision of consistent air quality information and associated public health advice, but inconsistency remains. Greater national consistency is required to enable individuals and communities to make informed decisions in relation to their health, wellbeing and resilience. Further, expanding air quality networks and adopting air quality forecasting would enhance community awareness and assist individuals and communities to take preventative steps to limit the negative health impacts of poor air quality.

Natural disasters and poor air quality

14.5 Some natural disasters, including storms and bushfires, can have a significant impact on air quality and impacts can be wide-ranging and potentially long-term. We heard that bushfire smoke, in particular, is a major public health concern. It contains a mixture of toxic pollutants, such as ozone, carbon monoxide, hydrocarbons and free radicals. Depending on the specific compounds, these pollutants can be respiratory irritants, reduce the capacity of red blood cells to transport oxygen, or be carcinogenic. [1476]

14.6 Bushfire smoke, like other forms of air pollution, also contains very small particulate matter. Particulate matter is a complex mixture of solid and liquid particles that are classified by size (PM2.5 and PM10 [1477]). [1478] PM2.5 is small enough to penetrate into the lungs and enter the bloodstream and PM10 can enter the lungs through the nose and throat. The human body responds to PM2.5 and PM10 in a similar way to an injury or virus – immune and stress responses and can lead to inflammation of tissues and organs. These physiological responses can result in chronic and acute respiratory and cardiovascular impacts, such as heart attack or stroke. [1479] Exposure to particulate matter is also linked to increased mortality rates. [1480]

Figure 49: Size comparison of PM2.5 and PM10 [1481]

Size comparison of PM2.5 and PM10

14.7 Poor air quality can also add pressure to the health system through increased admissions to hospital, ambulance call outs, presentations to general practitioners and sales of medications. [1482]

14.8 We are also aware of a growing body of evidence on the impacts of PM2.5 exposure and broader health outcomes, such as negative impacts on blood glucose control, mental health, neurological function and developmental conditions in unborn children and infants. [1483]

14.9 While most healthy adults and children will recover quickly from occasional acute smoke exposures, certain groups are particularly susceptible to smoke-related health impacts. These include the elderly, young children, pregnant women and people with pre‑existing conditions (such as asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, high blood pressure, coronary heart disease, congestive heart failure, angina and diabetes). [1484]

14.10 Research on particulate matter exposure has found that, in general, if particulate matter concentration levels double, then it could be expected that adverse health outcomes would also double. [1485]

Satellite images of southeast Australia during the 2019‑2020 bushfiresSatellite images of southeast Australia during the 2019‑2020 bushfires

Figure 50: Satellite images of southeast Australia during the 2019‑2020 bushfires. [1486] The light grey is the dispersal of bushfire smoke and the red and orange areas are detected fire and thermal anomalies.

14.11 Smoke from the 2019‑2020 bushfires, travelled hundreds of kilometres from its source, and blanketed large parts of Australia – see Figure 50. We heard that it adversely affected approximately 80% of the population. [1487] The air quality in some areas was very poor for several weeks. We heard that peer-reviewed research indicated that smoke, from 19 weeks of continuous fire activity, may have contributed up to 429 premature deaths, 3,320 hospital admissions for cardiovascular and respiratory conditions and 1,523 presentations to emergency departments for asthma. That research also suggested that the health costs of smoke exposure from the 2019‑2020 bushfires resulted in $1.95 billion in health costs, associated with premature loss of life and admissions to hospitals. [1488]

14.12 Smoke exposure during the 2019‑2020 bushfires had a particular impact on individuals with asthma. Asthma Australia’s Bushfire Survey found that people with asthma were: more likely to report having respiratory symptoms (94%); four times more likely to attend an emergency department or be hospitalised; and seven times more likely to report requiring medication during the 2019‑2020 bushfires. [1489]

14.13 The impacts of poor air quality on people with asthma is not limited to bushfire smoke, and includes, for example, thunderstorms. [1490] A coronial inquest found that in 2016, a thunderstorm resulted in 10 deaths [1491], and the Victorian Chief Health Officer reported a 672% increase in respiratory-related emergency department presentations, a 681% increase in asthma-related admissions and 73% increase in ambulance callouts. [1492] This was likely caused by airborne allergens spread by the thunderstorm. [1493]

14.14 Poor air quality has adverse health impacts. Information on local air quality, and associated health advice, would assist communities to take preventative actions and minimise impacts.

Air quality information

14.15 A number of organisations and individuals have called for improved air quality information. There is strong support for nationally consistent, expanded and ‘real‑time’ air quality monitoring, supported by easy to understand and targeted public health advice. [1494]

14.16 Since February 2020, and following a recommendation of the Council of Australian Governments’ Health Council, Australian, state and territory governments have been working together towards national consistency in air quality information. [1495]

14.17 State and territory governments are primarily responsible for monitoring and communicating air quality in Australia. [1496] The National Environment Protection (Ambient Air Quality) Measure (NEPM AAQ) sets nationally consistent standards against which state and territory governments are required to monitor air quality. The NEPM AAQ was established under the National Environment Protection Council Act 1994 (Cth) (NEPC Act) and corresponding legislation in each jurisdiction. The NEPM AAQ sets out maximum concentration standards for six pollutants: carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, ozone, sulphur dioxide, lead, and particles (PM10 and PM2.5) – see Table 8.

Table 8: Current NEPM AAQ – Standards for pollutants [1497]

Current NEPM AAQ – Standards for pollutants

Air quality monitoring

14.18 State and territory governments have placed air quality monitoring stations across their jurisdictions, in line with requirements of the NEPM AAQ. [1498] State and territory governments also have portable monitors which can be deployed to monitor an air quality incident, such as a bushfire. [1499] Some state and territory governments have also established additional networks to complement the monitoring stations required by the NEPM AAQ. [1500] For example, the Victorian Government has co‑designed an air quality monitoring network with the community in the Latrobe Valley in Victoria. [1501]

14.19 An air quality monitoring station consists of a number of instruments that measure pollutant levels in the air and, usually, meteorological conditions. Each type of pollutant requires a different type of instrument to measure it.

14.20 The private sector and industry are also involved in air quality monitoring. For example, a private air quality monitoring network operates in the Latrobe Valley, partially funded by the Australian Government [1502] – this network is separate to the Victorian Government’s co‑designed network. A number of industry‑funded monitoring stations also operate in communities with major industries, such as coalmining and lead smelters. [1503]

14.21 Not all pollutants are measured at each air quality monitoring station across Australia. State and territory governments determine the mix of pollutants measured at each site, based on local circumstances. [1504] For example, the ACT does not measure sulphur dioxide as there is no significant source of that pollutant in the territory. [1505] Since 2004, most state and territory governments do not monitor lead following the phasing out of leaded petrol. [1506] However, monitors in Townsville and Mount Isa in Queensland, [1507] and Port Pirie in SA, continue to measure ambient lead levels, due to particular local industries. [1508]

14.22 The Tasmanian Government has advised us that, due to limited resources, it only publicly reports PM2.5 and PM10. It advises that screening studies conducted some years ago indicated that other pollutants under the NEPM AAQ are at very low levels in Tasmania. [1509]

14.23 In general, state and territory governments use the standards in the NEPM AAQ to trigger the provision of air quality information, air quality alerts and public health advice. However, the NEPM AAQ is not routinely reviewed – the last review, National Environment Protection (Ambient Air Quality) Measure Review, was completed in 2011. [1510] The NEPC Act, the legislative basis for the NEPM AAQ and similar measures, must be reviewed every five years. However, there is no similar legislative requirement for the measures of the NEPC Act, such as the NEPM AAQ, to be regularly reviewed.

14.24 The 2011 review made a number recommendations to change the NEPM AAQ, including in relation to its pollutant standards. In 2016, stricter reporting standards for PM2.5 and PM10 were introduced, following the 2011 review and taking into account the most recent scientific advice. [1511] The Australian Government told us that standards for particulate matter were reviewed in 2015 and standards for other key pollutants are actively being reviewed now. [1512] The 2011 review also made recommendations to update the standards for sulphur dioxide, ozone and nitrogen dioxide. Work is currently underway to update the standards for these pollutants (public consultation on the proposed variations closed on 7 August 2019). [1513] The Australian Government has advised us that the standards in the NEPM AAQ are proposed to be next reviewed in 2025. [1514]

14.25 Regular and fixed review periods, such as every five to 10 years, within the NEPM AAQ could provide the community with confidence that it takes into account the latest scientific evidence and health research on the impacts of pollutants. Any changes arising from reviews of the NEPM AAQ should be implemented in timely manner.

Air quality information systems

14.26 State and territory governments provide air quality information through a variety of means – see Appendix 21: Air quality monitoring and health advice. However, there are differences between jurisdictions in the metrics used (Air Quality Indices (AQIs)) or concentration levels and categorisation (the risk ratings which apply to different air quality levels), including the colour schemes used.

14.27 AQIs are a consolidated numerical measure that use a combination of colour coded bands and numerical values. An AQI value provides information on the extent to which the air quality falls within, or exceeds, the established national standard in the NEPM AAQ. If an AQI value is 100, then the measured air quality for a particular pollutant has reached the maximum concentration standard in the NEPM AAQ (in Table 8). An AQI does not provide information on how much of a particular pollutant is in the air.

14.28 Victoria and Tasmania do not use AQIs, and instead report the concentration levels for particular pollutants – a precise measurement of the amount of a pollutant that is in the air.

14.29 Regardless of the metric used, air quality information is reported by state and territory governments using different risk ratings. There is variability in the categories used to describe overall air quality ratings (very good, good, fair/moderate, poor, very poor, hazardous/extreme/severe), the colour coded bands used for each rating, what constitutes each rating and how the values are presented. There are also differences in the averaging periods that are reported.

14.30 In some jurisdictions, a concentration level of 50 µg/m3 for PM2.5 is rated as the worst air quality category, while in other jurisdictions this rating is triggered at 177 µg/m3 – see Figure 51. Differences in averaging periods can also result in different ratings being reported for a single location at a particular point in time. [1515]

14.31 In some jurisdictions, AQIs are reported for each pollutant while others only provide a composite. AQIs also assess other factors, such as visibility, which are not directly relevant to health outcomes. Consequently, the Centre for Air pollution, energy and health Research has argued for the removal of AQIs, to be replaced with categories based on pollutant concentration levels. [1516] This would be similar to the current practice in Victoria [1517] and Tasmania. [1518]

14.32 We have not received sufficient evidence to recommend that AQIs be replaced. However, self-evidently significant discrepancies in what is said to amount to poor air quality reduces the clarity and effectiveness of air quality advice. [1519] It is not surprising that the variability in AQIs and how it links to health advice has resulted in confusion in the community. [1520]

Comparison of air quality action categories for PM as at February 2020 – adapted from table produced by Environment Protection Authority (EPA)

Figure 51: Comparison of air quality action categories for PM2.5 as at February 2020 – adapted from table produced by Environment Protection Authority (EPA) Victoria. [1521]

14.33 Inconsistent information, particularly from private websites and blogs, can erode the community’s trust in air quality information. [1522] During the 2019‑2020 bushfires, some commercial and not‑for‑profit websites provided air quality information on bushfire-affected areas based on the United States’ AQI. [1523] This can create confusion as the AQIs used in the United States differ to AQIs used in Australia (for example, an AQI for PM2.5 of 100 in Australia represents a lower concentration of PM2.5 than an AQI of 100 in the United States). [1524]

14.34 Air quality information, including the use of AQIs, could be improved by providing more detailed and accessible information to the public, such as through the use of national apps, websites and traditional messaging communication modes.

14.35 There is an urgent need for national consistency in the categorisation of air quality. This includes consistency in the information provided, the labels and colour coded bands used, what constitutes each rating and how the values are presented.

Box 14.1 Air quality information in NSW, SA and Victoria

New South Wales [1525]

0 – 33

Very Good

34 – 66

Good

67 – 99

Fair

100 – 149

Poor

150 – 199

Very Poor

200+

Hazardous

New South Wales uses an AQI - the AQI value is calculated for each pollutant, and the maximum AQI value is reported online. Disaggregated AQIs and concentration levels are also available online for each monitored pollutant.

  • Air quality forecasts – provided online, and to subscribers as SMS alerts or emails. When air quality is forecast to be above AQI 100, health alerts are auto‑generated and delivered to subscribers. General health advice is provided with forecasts, based on the projected category.
  • Air quality alerts – automated air quality alerts, via SMS or emails. An alert is issued when an AQI above 100 is measured at any site for the entire region (limited to one per day per region).
  • Data delivery services – public access to hourly air quality and meteorological data is available via the NSW air quality Application Programming Interface and the data-download facility.
  • Public health communications – during a natural disaster there is typically increased public communications, including media conferences by senior officials, media releases and social media.
South Australia [1526]

0 – 33

Very Good

34 – 66

Good

67 – 99

Fair

100 – 149

Poor

150+

Very Poor

South Australia uses an AQI - the AQI value is calculated for each included pollutant, and the maximum AQI value is reported online. Concentration levels are also available online for each monitored pollutant.

Validated monitoring data - includes both pollutant and meteorological data that has been through a verification process to remove any errors. This data is published on the South Australian Government Open Data Portal.

Public health communications – public health messaging related to reduced air quality is provided through media releases, media interviews, press conferences, and social media posts as needed.

Alerts - during natural disasters alerts or further information is provided through the South Australia Environmental Protection website, social media and local media platforms (print, radio and TV).

Victoria [1527]

Variable

Good

Variable

Moderate

Variable

Poor

Variable

Very Poor

Variable

Hazardous

Victoria does not use an AQI - it evaluates each pollutant on a non‑linear scale. Concentration values are compared to the air quality categories, and the highest air quality category is reported online. There are five defined categories with descriptors.

AirWatch – a website which provides an interactive map, graphs and a table showing air quality information measured at stations around Victoria with location data updated each hour. AirWatch includes general health and air quality forecasts.

Air quality alerts – alerts are delivered through a variety of modes, including media releases, social media, online, AirWatch notices, and the Vic. Emergency App. Alerts are issued when air quality has been monitored as: Poor for 6 hours or more; Very Poor for 4 hours or more; and Hazardous for one hour or more.

Air quality report – developed during a natural disaster for the Incident Controller and other emergency services personnel.

Public health communications – during a natural disaster there is increased public communications, including media conferences by senior officials, media releases and social media. Public health advice is also available on the Health Channel, and the VicEmergency Hotline (1800 226 226) and website.

Data delivery services – access to air quality data is available via EPA Victoria’s air quality Application Programming Interface.

Near real‑time reporting

14.36 During the 2019‑2020 bushfires, there was demand within the community for ‘real‑time’ air quality information. However, at the time, many state and territory governments based air quality information for PM2.5 and PM10, both major components of bushfire smoke, on levels averaged over 24 hours, consistent with the NEPM AAQ (Table 8). Victoria and Tasmania had adopted shorter averaging periods for PM2.5 and PM10 prior to the 2019‑2020 bushfires. [1528]

14.37 Air quality conditions can change rapidly, particularly during an air quality incident, such as bushfires or storms. This means that reporting 24 hour averages often does not provide an accurate representation of air quality at a particular point in time. [1529]

14.38 The ability to access near real‑time information is important for the public and is crucial for high-risk individuals. Vulnerable individuals can experience deterioration in their health as the result of modest changes in air quality – and well before a 24 hour standard is exceeded. Early notification of worsening air quality enables the community to take preventative action, such as seeking cleaner air spaces, sealing an indoor environment, or taking preventative medication. [1530]

14.39 It seems that the term ‘real‑time’ air quality monitoring can, however, be misleading. Excessively short averaging periods can result in large fluctuations in measured air quality data. This can result in low-quality data which are not representative of the overall conditions in a local area [1531] – for example, there may be a single short lived ‘spike’ in reported air quality.

14.40 There is a broad consensus across governments and researchers on the need for shorter averaging periods for measured pollutants [1532] – experts generally agree that one hour averaging periods are an appropriate standard. [1533] Shorter averaging periods allow for near to real-time air quality information and will help people to take meaningful steps to reduce their exposure to poor air quality. [1534]

14.41 Some state and territory governments already use one hour averaging periods. [1535] Queensland adopted one hour averaging periods for PM2.5 and PM10 in advance of the 2020-2021 bushfire season. [1536] NSW and the ACT transitioned to one hour averaging periods for particulate matters as a result of the 2019‑2020 bushfires. [1537]

14.42 The Environmental Health Standing Committee of the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee (AHPPC) has agreed that reporting should be based on one hour averages of PM2.5 concentrations. If endorsed by the AHPPC, this framework will be implemented by environment protection agencies across Australia. [1538]

14.43 Shorter averaging periods in the reporting of air quality information would better reflect the health risks associated with poor air quality.

Health advice related to air quality

14.44 State and territory governments use a variety of means for the provision of health advice relating to air quality. Advice may be provided through social media, websites, media releases, information provided by key personnel and alerts. The frequency and triggers for the provision of health advice differ between jurisdictions – see Appendix 21: Air quality monitoring and health advice.

14.45 The content of general health advice varies between jurisdictions. Some provide more detailed information while others provide simplified messaging. [1539] Table 9 provides a sample of such advice provided by NSW and Victoria – see Appendix 21: Air quality monitoring and health advice. State and territory governments also provide more tailored health advice and information for vulnerable groups – but this also varies in its specificity. [1540]

14.46 Differences in the health advice provided to communities can cause confusion, particularly in cross-border areas. This undermines the utility of health advice and poses risks to vulnerable members of the community. Nationally consistent advice on the health impacts of air pollution, including smoke from bushfires, can assist in better managing its risks while providing useful information and advice to the general population and vulnerable people on how to protect their health. [1541]

14.47 State and territory governments typically publish general advice, aimed at mitigating risks associated with poor air quality, but take a more proactive role during an air quality incident, such as bushfire. For example, Queensland is guided by the Information for Public Health: Public health messaging for landscape fire smoke during a bushfire, which guides public health messaging and actions, taking into account PM2.5 concentration levels and the duration of exposure. [1542] The ACT uses seven ratings, separate and different to its AQI, to provide public health advice related to risks during smoky conditions, specifically in relation to PM2.5. [1543]

Sample of air quality health advice provided by NSW and Victoria
Table 9: Sample of air quality health advice provided by NSW and Victoria

14.48 Protective health advice on air quality needs to strike a balance between the level of detail provided and ensuring that the information is easily understood by the community. Advice needs to be clear, consistent, evidence‑based, outline activities that should be avoided, and complemented with targeted advice and plans for vulnerable groups. [1544] Public health advice should also be accessible and provided through a variety of means to ensure the broadest possible exposure and access. [1545]

14.49 There is value in nationally consistent, evidence-based and easily understood health advice in relation to air quality.

14.50 We heard of the need for greater education on air quality so that the community is better able to manage the risks associated with it. [1546] Any education would need to be informed by a greater understanding of the impacts of poor air quality on human health. Increased community education on air quality could foster a greater understanding of air quality and its impacts.

14.51 Improved community education would help enhance the community’s understanding of air quality and allow individuals to manage periods of poor air quality.

14.52 The provision of timely health advice during an air quality incident is dependent on the availability of air quality information. There is variability in the systems and processes used by environmental agencies to provide air quality information to health departments. For example, Queensland has developed an automated system which provides regular air quality reports to health departments (and other disaster management agencies). [1547] We heard of instances of real‑time air quality information not being provided to health departments. [1548] This could limit its utility in developing specific health advice during an air quality incident.

14.53 The availability of near real‑time and, ideally, automated provision of, air quality information from environmental agencies to health departments is important in the provision of timely health advice during an air quality incident.

Bushfire smoke over Parliament House in Canberra

Figure 52: Bushfire smoke over Parliament House in Canberra [1549]

Box 14.2 Hazard reduction activities and health advice

Smoke generated from hazard reduction activities can have significant health impacts, particularly for vulnerable groups. Research suggests the cumulative impact of moderate exposure to particulate matter, such as multiple days of minor smoke exposure from a hazard reduction burn, could be equally as damaging as severe short-term exposure. [1550]

Decision makers must balance conducting hazard reduction activities with community health impact. The level of involvement of state and territory health authorities in hazard reduction activities varies. State and territory health authorities are not routinely involved in the decision-making process as to the timing of hazard reduction activities. [1551] Health authorities may be involved in the development of hazard reduction protocols and frameworks, or involved in working groups. For example, NSW Health is on the NSW Hazard Reduction Burn Smoke Steering Committee. [1552] Some state and territory governments have specialised frameworks to support decision-making for smoke and other emissions, such as Victoria’s Smoke Framework. [1553]

Proactively managing and minimising the impacts of smoke from all-hazard reduction activities can yield substantial public health benefits. [1554] Community concerns regarding these impacts can, understandably, prompt criticism of hazard reduction activities. [1555] Ideally, hazard reduction planning would take into account the health risks associated with generated smoke, although this must also be balanced with risks associated with high fuel loads. Local communities should be notified in advance when a burn is scheduled and be supported by comprehensive air quality monitoring for the duration of hazard reduction activity. [1556]

A NSW ranger carries out a controlled hazard reduction burn

Figure 53: A NSW ranger carries out a controlled hazard reduction burn [1557]

Public health interventions

14.54 We heard concerns about the level of guidance and support provided to communities to minimise the impacts of poor air quality. A common response to poor air quality is the use of facemasks. However, we heard that advice relating to their use can be confusing, inconsistent, and often the evidentiary basis for its use is relatively poor. [1558] Paper or cloth facemasks are ineffective at filtering small particles. P2 and N95 facemasks are only effective at filtering small particles (not toxic gases) and only if properly fitted. These facemasks are impractical for use by children and are ineffective if a tight facial seal is not achieved (for example, due to facial hair).

14.55 We heard that the use of portable air cleaners or air purifiers similarly has insufficient guidance. [1559] Air purifiers are only effective at reducing indoor air pollution levels when they are: fitted with high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters; used in a well‑sealed area; and used in a room size that is consistent with the manufacturer’s recommendations. Air purifiers can have a significant upfront cost. [1560]

14.56 Recommended interventions may also be impractical and provide a false sense of security. Public health advice often focuses on shelter in place at times of poor air quality. Sheltering in place may, however, provide poor protection, particularly in older buildings. Older buildings are often inadequately sealed and may not offer any protection from outdoor air pollution. [1561]

14.57 Australian, state and territory governments supported, or supported in principle, the development of close to real time, nationally consistent public messaging on air quality. [1562] The ACT also suggested development of a national guidance similar to the United States Environmental Protection Agency’s Wildfire Smoke Guide for Public Health Officials [1563] (see Box 14.3). [1564]

14.58 There is a need for greater guidance to the community on health interventions that help mitigate the impacts of poor air quality. Additional guidance and planning could help communities better prepare for poor air quality and develop effective and practical interventions. This will assist to mitigate the impact of poor air quality, particularly for vulnerable groups.


Recommendation 14.1 Nationally consistent air quality information, health advice and interventions

Australian, state and territory governments should:

  1. develop close to real-time, nationally consistent air quality information, including consistent categorisation and public health advice
  2. greater community education and guidance, and
  3. targeted health advice to vulnerable groups.

Box 14.3 Preparing and planning for smoke – ‘Smoke Plans’

‘Smoke Plans’ have been suggested as one approach to mitigate the impacts of air quality incidents. These plans would be developed by individuals and key institutions and would identify the impacts of air pollution and strategies to mitigate the effects of exposure. Smoke Plans have been successful in the United States and the Victorian Government is exploring their use. [1565]

US Wildfire Smoke Guide for Public Health Officials and factsheets
Figure 54: US Wildfire Smoke Guide for Public Health Officials and factsheets

Planning processes could help with the development of specific strategies before an air quality incident. For example, it could assist with the identification and preparation of clean air locations for those needing to seek shelter - such as libraries, shopping malls, community centres, or schools that have tightly sealed windows and appropriate heating, air‑conditioning and ventilation systems fitted with high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters. It could also support the use of interventions to reduce the impact of smoke inside buildings for longer events. [1566]

The United States Environmental Protection Agency has published the Wildfire Smoke Guide for Public Health Officials. This guide is intended to provide public health officials with information they need to be prepared for smoke events and to communicate health risks and take measures to protect the community. The guide is accessible to the public to help them mitigate the risks associated with smoke.

The guide provides a consolidated resource which outlines the impact of smoke and specific strategies to reduce exposure covering a range of circumstances. The guide includes a series of factsheets to prepare for the smoke impacts before the start of the ‘fire season’; how to protect children, pets and livestock from smoke; and effective options to filter the air at home to reduce indoor air pollution. The guide also provides information on identifying and preparing clean air shelters for use by the public and protecting workers in offices and other indoor spaces.

Expansion of air quality monitoring networks

14.59 We heard that many areas, particularly rural and remote areas, did not have access to relevant and timely air quality information during the 2019‑2020 bushfires. [1567]

...there were limited real‑time air quality monitoring stations around some of the other bushfire affected areas such as Rockhampton in Central Queensland. To compensate, Queensland Health relied on visual observations from regional Public Health units and location of bushfires as advised by [Queensland Fire and Emergency Services] to estimate air quality. [1568]

14.60 During the 2019‑2020 bushfires, NSW deployed portable air quality monitoring instruments to bushfire-affected areas in Cooma, Lismore, Grafton, Merimbula, Coffs Harbour and Port Macquarie. [1569] Victoria also deployed monitors to 15 locations across the state. [1570]

14.61 The main barriers to the expansion of the air quality monitoring network include: [1571] high establishment costs (which can range from $120,000 and $250,000 per site); ongoing operational costs (which can range from $20,000 to $60,000 per site per annum); the need for highly skilled staff; and the need to identify suitable locations to install a monitor.

14.62 In addition, establishing fixed air quality monitoring stations in every town in Australia would be inefficient and have limited utility. In many areas there would not be significant sources of air pollution unless there was an air quality incident, such as a bushfire. Most state and territory governments assess the health risks and emission and pollutant sources when determining the location of fixed, temporary and mobile air quality monitoring stations. [1572]

14.63 More expansive air quality monitoring networks, based on an assessment of risk and utility, would provide communities with more accurate and relevant air quality information.

14.64 While air quality monitoring stations in every town in Australia would be cost‑prohibitive, there is increasing recognition of the value of low‑cost and medium‑cost sensors. [1573] A number of state and territory governments are trialling and evaluating these sensors to assess their suitability to complement existing air quality monitoring networks. [1574]

14.65 However, low‑cost and medium‑cost sensors are not a ‘silver bullet’. There are a number of limitations with these monitors, including in relation to their functionality, reliability and quality, especially under extreme environmental conditions. [1575] There is also an absence of nationally agreed verification, correction and calibration standards for low‑cost and medium‑cost sensors. [1576] As a consequence, caution is required when comparing air quality data from these sensors to data from broader air quality networks. The quality of data can vary significantly across different low‑cost and medium‑cost sensors, which can undermine the veracity of air quality information. [1577]

14.66 We heard of the need for an agreed national system to certify and verify different types of sensors, which would support use of the data in air quality information. [1578] State and territory governments have taken steps to establish such a system. The Clean Air Society of Australia and New Zealand, with the support of state and territory governments, has developed an independent testing and evaluation scheme. This scheme is intended to provide technical guidance on how low-cost sensor manufacturers can verify their equipment against reference monitoring equipment. [1579]

14.67 The use of low‑cost sensors to complement air quality monitoring networks should be supported by nationally agreed standards and processes to verify low‑cost monitors and integrate the data provided by those monitors within broader air quality networks.

Air quality forecasting

14.68 The significant impacts of smoke from the 2019‑2020 bushfires highlighted the need for a national air hazard forecasting capability, [1580] as recommended by the CSIRO in its Report on Climate and Disaster Resilience. [1581]

14.69 A number of tools have been developed to support forecasting capabilities. For example, the Victorian and NSW governments funded the creation of a smoke plume forecasting capability - Air Quality Forecasting System (AQFx). The AQFx was designed by CSIRO and is managed and delivered by the Bureau of Meteorology, which provides the required meteorological information (such as weather reports and forecasts). [1582]

14.70 The AQFx was used during the 2019‑2020 bushfires to generate smoke forecasts in Victoria and NSW. These forecasts were used to help manage hazards to health, aviation and Australian Defence Force operations. The AQFx was also used to develop forecasts which were communicated to the community through air quality alerts. [1583]

14.71 As an emerging tool, further validation and improvements are required for AQFx, including its usability in forecasting prolonged smoke events, flexibility in incorporating rapidly changing input data on fire behaviour and integration with other output data (for example, population density). [1584] The Victorian Government and the University of Melbourne have suggested that the AQFx be transitioned to an operational system within the Bureau of Meteorology. [1585] The Bureau of Meteorology (BoM) and CSIRO expressed support for the transition of AQFx to an operational system within the BoM, supported by CSIRO and the jurisdictions. [1586]

14.72 The AQFx system is one of many tools that is available or being developed to support air quality forecasting. There is in‑principle support across governments and researchers for the development of a national air quality forecasting capability, not necessarily limited to the AQFx system, to be provided as an ongoing service through the BoM. [1587] Any approach to national air quality forecasting should be consistent, integrated and accessible.


Recommendation 14.2 National Air Quality Forecasting Capability

Australian, state and territory governments should develop national air quality forecasting capabilities, which include broad coverage of population centres and apply to smoke and other airborne pollutants, such as dust and pollen, to predict plume behaviour.


Visible satellite image (left); AQFx PM

Figure 55: Visible satellite image (left); AQFx PM2.5 forecast (right) [1588]

Knowledge gaps

14.73 The total impact of poor air quality on human health is not presently known. This is particularly the case in relation to: the underlying biological mechanisms involved in respiratory impacts; the longitudinal and long-term health impacts of repeated, time‑limited and prolonged exposure to smoke at different concentrations; the time taken to recover between smoke events; and the impacts on vulnerable groups. [1589]

14.74 Public health advice related to air quality would benefit from a greater understanding of the effectiveness of strategies designed to minimise the impact of poor air quality. This includes: a better understanding of the efficacy of air shelters, filters, and facemasks; and developing an evidentiary basis for public health advice relating to sheltering in place - taking into consideration the impracticalities of sheltering in place over prolonged periods and limitations of older buildings to prevent pollutants getting inside. [1590]

Box 14.4 NSW Air Quality Forecasting

Air quality forecasting is a complex science. Accurate forecasts require compilation of substantial data on forecast weather, current and background air pollution levels and pollutant emissions from multiple industries, activities and regions. [1591] To support this, NSW has developed an Air Quality Forecasting Framework, [1592] which is the basis of its air quality forecasting system. The framework uses a range of inputs and systems, including emissions and plume trajectory modelling. [1593]

The NSW Government currently provides daily air quality forecasts for the Sydney Metropolitan Region and is in the process of extending forecasts to other regions. These forecasts are provided online and delivered via SMS and emails to subscribers at 4:00pm (for the next day). [1594]

During extreme events, updated forecasts may be issued at other times. When air quality is forecast to be ‘poor’ or worse (AQI above 100), health alerts are auto‑generated and delivered to subscribers. [1595]

These forecasts help people who are sensitive to air pollution to manage their exposure and inform responses to pollution incidents. [1596]

Air quality forecast for the Sydney Metropolitan Region on 1 January 2020

Figure 56: Air quality forecast for the Sydney Metropolitan Region on 1 January 2020 [1597]

14.75 During the 2019‑2020 bushfires, the Australian Government announced that approximately $3 million from the Medical Research Future Fund will be provided for research into the physiological impacts of prolonged bushfire smoke exposure. [1598] Four projects have been funded focusing on: [1599]

  • identifying and treating the physiological impacts of bushfire smoke
  • the respiratory impacts of bushfire smoke on vulnerable groups
  • the physiological impacts of bushfire smoke on emergency responders and outdoor workers, and
  • the efficacy of facemasks in filtering bushfire smoke.

14.76 Research of this nature is valuable and should continue to be supported. A national research effort, involving the Australian, state and territory governments, is needed to address current knowledge gaps related to air quality. Addressing the knowledge gaps will assist in developing and implementing appropriate clinical and public health practices to mitigate the impact of poor air quality.

14.77 There is value in Australian, state and territory governments addressing knowledge gaps relating to the impacts of poor air quality and better understanding the efficacy of current air quality related health advice and mitigation strategies.

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