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Health concerns with particulate matter air pollution

Poor air quality in Wagga Wagga contributes to ill health, according to a study led by Charles Sturt University (CSU) health researcher, Mr Tony Kolbe.

“The scientific evidence about the health effects of air pollution is compelling. The longer and more intense the exposure of people to pollution, the greater the impacts on their health, ranging from minor symptoms to decreased lung function, hospitalisation and even premature death,” said Mr Kolbe, whose previous work includes asthma research in the Riverina.

Mr Kolbe, who is director of CSU’s Centre for Inland Health, and epidemiologist Ms Kim Gilchrist from the Murrumbidgee Local Health District, examined the latest scientific evidence to highlight the health impacts of particulate matter (PM) air pollution, with an emphasis on pollution sources effecting rural and regional areas. They also investigated what measures can help reduce risks to the community.

“Various studies have consistently demonstrated higher rates of respiratory and cardiovascular disease in populations exposed to PM pollution. How these particles contribute to these diseases is also now better understood. People with pre-existing chronic disease, children and older people are most susceptible to the adverse effects of this pollution,” Mr Kolbe said.

The Wagga Wagga air quality program commenced in 2010 after growing concerns about local pollution levels were expressed by the Wagga Wagga community. The research project was funded by the NSW Office of Environment and Heritage (OEH) and CSU.

“PM air pollution includes tiny airborne particles that are 10 microns or less in diameter (called PM10 particles). Smaller particles, PM2.5, can also be measured. In comparison, the human hair is about 70 microns,” he said.

“The smaller the particle, the deeper it penetrates into the lungs and the more important it is in effecting health. We still need to learn more about the importance of the sources and composition of particles that cause ill health, as well as interaction between these particles and other pollutants.”

In rural and regional areas, PM pollution comes from smoke from agricultural burning such as stubble burning, bushfires, prescribed burning and wood heaters, and dust, as well as motor vehicles and industrial and mining activities.

“The science indicates that PM pollution from burning vegetation may be as important in causing ill health as PM from burning fossil fuels. While there is evidence that dust from erosion, and agricultural practices such as ploughing and mining, also affects people’s health, these particles are generally larger and less likely to penetrate deeply into the lungs.”

Data from the NSW OEH air quality monitoring network showed that Wagga Wagga experienced poorer air quality than most sites in NSW between 2003 and 2009, with agricultural burning, dust storms and bushfires contributing to high PM10 levels.

“As no threshold level for PM10 has been identified, it is important that practical efforts are made to maintain air quality at the best levels possible,” Mr Kolbe said.

“We believe we need more research to identify the source and size of particles making up PM air pollution in regional areas, as well as increased awareness in the community about the health effects of air pollution and ways in which people can avoid exposure.

“The installation of more air quality monitoring equipment by the OEH will help in understanding the size and source of air pollution in Wagga Wagga.”

(Source: Charles Sturt University: ReportParticulate matter air pollution in a NSW regional centre”)

Dates

Posted On: 24 February, 2012
Modified On: 13 March, 2014

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