By Peter Hehir
The biggest killer worldwide is air pollution.
The WHO hosted its first global conference on air pollution and health in Geneva last week, including a high-level action day at which nations and cities are expected to make new commitments to cut air pollution.
This barely caused a ripple here in NSW however. Its business as usual with Glad the Impaler and her RMS crew, who stubbornly refuse to even acknowledge that the unfiltered road tunnels being built by the RMS and the Sydney Motorway Corporation are an issue, let alone a real killer. Not just for those who live adjacent to the portals and downstream of the plumes, but also for the tunnel users, who will be subjected twice daily to lethal levels.
In spite of castigating the Labor Party in Parliament back in 2008 when they refused to filter the Lane Cove Tunnel, our Glad has done the mother of all back flips in relation to filtering WestConnex, the M4-M5 Link, the Iron Cove Tunnel, the Rozelle Interchange with its four stacks and the about to be approved Western Harbour Tunnel.
With tunnel air here in NSW, based on RMS figures from the Lane Cove Tunnel, at 50 times the WHO recognised international guidelines, there is just a deafening silence from the Impaler.
How can this be? How can a government be so callous as to wilfully and blatantly disregard its duty of care? How can they deliberately set about putting in place a chain of events that will result in thousands of premature, painful and preventable deaths?
A recent article in the Guardian confirmed that the simple act of breathing is killing 7 million people a year and harming billions more. Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the head of the World Health Organization, describes air pollution as the “new tobacco”.
“The world has turned the corner on tobacco. Now it must do the same for the ‘new tobacco’ – the toxic air that billions breathe every day,” said the WHO’s director general. “No one, rich or poor, can escape air pollution. It is a silent public health emergency.”
“Despite this epidemic of needless, preventable deaths and disability, a smog of complacency pervades the planet,” Tedros said in the Guardian article. “This is a defining moment and we must scale up action to urgently respond to this challenge.”
“Children and babies’ developing bodies are most at risk from toxic air”, said Dr Maria Neira, WHO director for public health and the environment, “with 300 million living in places where toxic fumes are six times above international guidelines”.
“Air pollution is affecting all of us but children are the most vulnerable of all,” she said, noting the alarm among child health experts about the links between toxic air and respiratory diseases, cancer and damaged intelligence. “We have to ask what are we doing to our children, and the answer I am afraid is shockingly clear: we are polluting their future, and this is very worrying for all of us.”
Early estimates using improved models indicate a total figure of 9 million deaths from particle pollution. Daniel Krewski at the University of Ottawa, one of the team behind the newer estimate, said: “This suggests that outdoor air pollution is an even more important risk factor for health than previously thought.”
Each passing month sees new studies showing further harms of toxic air, with recent revelations including a “huge reduction” in intelligence, millions of diabetes cases and the first direct evidence of pollution particles in mothers’ placentas.
The cost of the lost lives and ill health caused is also a colossal economic burden, estimated at $5 trillion USD a year, according to a World Bank report.
A staggering 91% of the world’s population live in areas with air pollution above WHO limits. Many of these are in 3rd world countries, however proposals like WestConnex ensure that much of the Inner West will be exposed to lethal levels of carcinogenic diesel particulate pollution.
What is not widely known is that the smaller the particle, the greater the danger. PM < 2.5 is an extremely efficient killer as it easily bypasses the body’s defence systems and lodges in a variety of organs.
One important step that the community here has taken is to establish the citizen’s network of pollution monitors. More and more of these devices are being installed here in the Inner West, ensuring that this network will continue to establish an increasingly detailed air pollution baseline.
Neira went on to say that, “Given the overwhelming evidence of harm from air pollution, any politician who failed to tackle air pollution would be judged harshly by future generations – and the law”. “We all know pollution is causing major damage and we all know it is something we can avoid. Now we need to react collectively and in a very dramatic and urgent way.”
“Politicians cannot say in 10 years from now, when citizens will start to take them to court for the harm they have suffered, that they didn’t know.”
The Premier does indeed know! And has been put on notice…