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Media Release
Minister for the Environment and Heritage
Dr David Kemp

23 May 2003

National Action to Protect our Air


A national approach to detect and monitor some of the more harmful air pollutants is an important step towards better air quality and health outcomes for Australians, Federal Minister for the Environment and Heritage, Dr David Kemp, said today.

New actions to protect our air, agreed to by Environment Ministers at today's Environment Protection and Heritage Council meeting in Melbourne, include a new standard for fine particles, 2.5 micrometres or less in size, and a call for comment on a proposed national approach for five toxic air pollutants known to be harmful to human health.

"Australia is lucky, in that the level of our air pollution is low compared with other countries. But monitoring of these more hazardous air pollutants has been limited and we still don't know enough about them to be sure that we are managing them as well as we can," Dr Kemp said.

"These pollutants are produced from a range of sources in the community such as domestic wood fires, motor vehicles and some industrial activities.

"It's extremely important that we get our approach right as five of these toxic pollutants - benzene, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, formaldehyde, toluene and xylenes - have been linked to cancer, birth defects, genetic damage, immunodeficiency and respiratory and nervous system disorders. There is growing evidence that fine particles are responsible for increases in daily mortality and hospital admissions for respiratory or cardiovascular disease.

"By establishing a National Environment Protection Measure (NEPM) specifically for fine particles and proposing a NEPM for air toxics, we are developing a nationally consistent framework for monitoring and reporting on these pollutants which will give us more reliable information to further strengthen air quality standards if required.

"Toxic air pollutants have the potential to affect everybody so I hope interested stakeholders will comment on the draft 'air toxics' NEPM so we can ensure the proposal best meets the community's needs."

Dr Kemp said groundbreaking Commonwealth-funded research had found Australians' exposure to some toxic air pollutants depends more on lifestyle than where they live. Contrary to previously held views that motor vehicles were the most important source of personal exposure to these pollutants, it was revealed arts, crafts and woodwork-based hobbies also can lead to elevated exposure levels.

"I'd like to thank the 200 Australians in Sydney, Adelaide, Melbourne and Perth who volunteered for this BTEX Personal Exposure Monitoring Study, which looked at the levels of the toxic air pollutants benzene, toluene, ethyl benzene and xylenes (known as BTEX) to which they were exposed," Dr Kemp said.

"The good news is that actual exposure to these pollutants was generally low for most participants, adding to recent evidence that air quality in our capital cities is improving.

"Better still is the study's finding that exposure to the carcinogenic pollutant benzene was even lower in cities where there are reduced benzene limits in fuel. These lower benzene limits will come into force nationally at 1% maximum by 1 January 2006 under the Federal Government's Fuel Quality Standards Act 2000, meaning lower exposure for all Australians."

The volunteers for the research, all non smokers, wore a pen-like gas sampling device for five days in winter and summer which registered minute traces of the air pollutants.

"The study shows how behaviours and lifestyle affect health. This poses a challenge for governments as the issue of air quality crosses a range of different environments. But reducing emissions is not just the responsibility of the Commonwealth, State and local governments. Industry and consumers must also take action," Dr Kemp said.

The $560,000 study was funded through the Howard Government's Living Cities " Air Toxics Program. The Federal Government has committed over $2 million over the past three years for air toxic programs to help reduce exposure to pollutants.

Copies of the BTEX Personal Exposure Monitoring Study are available online at www.ea.gov.au/atmosphere/airtoxics/report6/index.html.

Media Contact:
Catherine Job (02) 6277 7640 or 0408 648 400

Commonwealth of Australia