Summary

Air monitoring graphic

Rural Air Quality Monitoring Network

35 sites

monitor particles in NSW

Petrol bowser graphic

Petrol vapour capture during vehicle refuelling

92%

compliance by service stations

Wood heater graphic

Particle concentrations exceeded national standards up to

16 days a year

between 2015 and 2017 in rural areas

Air monitoring graphic

Ground level ozone exceeded national standards up to

9 days a year

between 2015 and 2017 in Sydney

NSW air quality is generally good or very good and consistently complies with national air quality standards for carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, lead and sulfur dioxide. Levels of fine particle pollution and ozone continue to be of concern.

Fine particles are invisible to the naked eye and can be inhaled into the lungs. PM10 is particulate matter 10 micrometers or less in diameter and includes PM2.5. PM2.5 is particulate matter 2.5 micrometers or less in diameter. Particle pollution generally meets national air quality standards in Sydney, except when natural events such as bushfires or dust storms occur, or hazard reduction burning is conducted. Between 2015 and 2017, particle concentrations exceeded the national air quality standards on up to 20 days a year in Sydney, and up to 16 days a year in regional areas of NSW monitored under the Rural Air Quality Monitoring Network (Albury, Bathurst, Tamworth and Wagga Wagga North).

There is growing evidence about the adverse health impacts of airborne particles so in 2016 national air quality standards were strengthened to address this issue. Australia now has the most stringent PM2.5 standards, offering the best health protection in the world.

Between 2015 and 2017, concentrations of ground-level ozone, a key component of photochemical smog, exceeded national air quality standards in Sydney on up to nine days a year. Emissions of nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds are the main precursors of ozone and include emissions from industrial facilities, power stations and motor vehicle exhaust. To help reduce these emissions, the NSW Government has introduced strategies such as the Vapour Recovery Program to reduce petrol emissions from service stations.

Nitrogen dioxide and sulfur dioxide levels are usually 25–75% lower (better) than the national air quality standards.

The NSW Government has delivered a range of programs to further improve air quality in NSW, including the Dust Stop program, which reduces dust from coal mines, and the Wood Smoke Reduction Program, which helps to reduce smoke from domestic wood heaters.

Related topics: Climate Change | Energy Consumption | Greenhouse Gas Emissions | Transport

NSW indicators

* You may need to scroll to the right to see the full content, or switch to landscape orientation.

Indicator and status Environmental
trend
Information
reliability
Concentrations of ozone
statusMODERATE
Stable ✔✔✔
Concentrations of particles (PM10)
statusMODERATE
Stable ✔✔✔
Concentrations of particles (PM2.5)
statusMODERATE
Stable ✔✔✔
Concentrations of carbon monoxide
statusGOOD
Stable ✔✔✔
Concentrations of nitrogen dioxide
statusGOOD
Stable ✔✔✔
Concentrations of sulfur dioxide
statusGOOD
Stable ✔✔✔
Concentrations of lead
statusGOOD
Stable ✔✔✔

Notes:

Terms and symbols used above are defined in About the report

Context

Since the early 1990s, research has emerged about the adverse health effects of air pollution. Short-term exposure to elevated air pollutants exacerbates respiratory and cardiovascular problems and increases the risk of acute symptoms, hospitalisation and death (NEPC 2014). Repeated long-term exposure increases the risk of chronic respiratory and cardiovascular disease and mortality, can impact on birth weight, and can permanently affect lung development in children (WHO 2013b).

The International Agency for Research on Cancer has classified diesel exhaust (WHO 2012) and outdoor air pollution (WHO 2013a) as human carcinogens.

Monitoring indicates that most common air pollutants occur in NSW in concentrations generally well below dangerous levels. The main air pollutants of concern are:

  • particles (PM2.5 and PM10)
  • ground-level ozone (O3)
  • gases forming ozone: oxides of nitrogen (NOx) and volatile organic compounds (VOCs).

The main human sources of these pollutants are:

  • industry
  • motor vehicles
  • domestic wood smoke
  • hazard reduction burns and human-caused bushfires.

Australians spend an average of 20 hours a day indoors, largely at home (enHealth 2012). As a result, there may be greater personal exposure to indoor airborne pollutants than to air pollution outdoors. Indoor emissions can come from building fixtures, fittings and furniture, indoor activities such as heating and cooking, chemical cleaning products, tobacco smoke and outdoor air pollutants that have come inside.

Health costs of air pollution

In 2005, the annual health costs of air pollution in the Sydney Greater Metropolitan Region (GMR) were estimated to be $893 per head of population or $4.7 billion (DEC 2005), equivalent to $6.4 billion a year in 2015 terms (EPA/OEH 2016).

The 2014 Impact Statement to the Draft Variation to the National Environment Protection (Ambient Air Quality) Measure (NEPC 2014) noted that the savings in associated health costs, of reducing ambient PM10 concentration to 10 micrograms per cubic metre (μg/m3) and ambient PM2.5 concentration to 5μg/m3 in the GMR, was estimated to be $5.7 billion per annum.  

In 2005, the health costs of motor vehicle pollution across Australia’s capital cities were estimated to be up to $3.3 billion per year ($1.5 billion for Sydney) (BTRE 2005).

Pressures

Pollution sources

The air pollutants of ongoing concern for NSW air quality are ozone and particles, especially fine particles (PM2.5), due to their more significant impacts on human health. Occasionally, national air quality standards continue to be exceeded for ozone and particle pollution, and health effects are known to occur even at concentrations that are within national standards.

Sources of primary particles which are released directly into the air, and sources of precursor pollutants for secondary particles (formed in the air) and ozone, are therefore a focus in NSW.

For information on ozone, and its main precursors oxides of nitrogen (NOx) and volatile organic compounds (VOCs), see the Ozone section in ‘Status and trends’.

For information on particle and fine particle pollution, see the Particles section in ‘Status and trends’.

Recent research findings

Airborne particles in Sydney

Studies into the sources of airborne particles conducted in Sydney have found (Cope et al.2014; Cohen et al. 2016):

  • wood smoke, mainly from residential wood heating, contributes significantly to fine particle pollution in autumn and winter, particularly in western Sydney
  • the contribution of motor vehicle emissions to PM2.5 concentrations reduced between 2000 and 2014, but remains a significant source of fine particles
  • secondary sulfate particles from SOemissions from sources such as power generation, industry and motor vehicles contribute significantly to fine particle pollution, especially in summer
  • organic matter in summer and autumn, and sea salt in summer, are large sources of PM2.5
  • major sources of secondary organic particles in the air include VOCs from vegetation in summer and wood heaters in autumn and winter.

Airborne particles in the Hunter region

Studies of sources of airborne particles in the Lower and Upper Hunter regions have found:

  • dominant sources of PM2.5 in Muswellbrook and Singleton included wood smoke, vehicle emissions and industrial emissions from power stations – fine particle pollution was higher in winter, due to wood fires used for residential heating (Hibberd et al. 2013)
  • main sources of PM2.5air pollution in the Lower Hunter region included motor vehicle emissions; wood smoke; industrial and shipping emissions; soil and sea salt
  • sources of precursor pollutants contributing to fine particle pollution included SO2 from fossil fuel burning, ammonia from industry, vehicles and agriculture, and NOx from vehicles, industry and off-road equipment (Hibberd et al. 2016)
  • the larger particles of visible black dust found on inner city surfaces were made up of soil particles (approximately 69%), coal dust (around 10%), rubber particles (4%) and soot (3%), with the remaining 14% from other sources (AECOM 2016).

As well as being the largest source of particles in the Sydney region and contributing significantly to particle pollution in the Hunter, wood smoke contains other air pollutants such as carbon monoxide, oxides of nitrogen, and a range of organic compounds, some of which are toxic or carcinogenic (e.g. benzo(α)pyrene and benzene).

The NSW GMR Air Emissions Inventory for 2008 (EPA 2012a), found that emissions of key air pollutants were decreasing in Sydney despite increases in population and other drivers. However, emissions of NOx and PM10 were increasing – see State of the Environment 2012 (EPA 2012b). 

Temperatures in NSW are approximately one degree Celsius above pre-industrial times and are projected to further rise over the 21st century (BoM 2018). Future trends in rainfall are not known, given uncertainties in the modelling of clouds and convection.

The relationship between climate change and air quality is complex. While there may be decreases in some types of emissions, such as wood smoke, and NOx from vehicles, due to higher than average temperatures, chemical and temperature changes in the atmosphere may lead to increases in key air pollutants. This will influence the formation of ozone and secondary particles (PM2.5).

Events such as droughts and bushfires, which may become more frequent with climate change, may also increase air pollution (OEH undated, OEH 2014a). For example, the frequency and severity of dust storms increases with the frequency of droughts (Speer 2013).

Warmer temperatures and increased carbon dioxide levels are associated with higher pollen production and mould growth, leading to higher levels of airborne allergens (Katelaris and Beggs, 2018). Changing weather patterns may also result in an increase in unusual storms that trigger asthma in some people (ASCIA 2016, Asthma Australia).

Research into the interactions between climate change and air quality is ongoing. Sources include Adapt NSW, Cope et al 2008, DECCW 2010, Jacob & Winner 2008, Lacressonnière et al 2014, Pfister et al 2014, Walsh 2008.

See also the Climate Change and Greenhouse Gas Emissions topics

The NSW population is projected to grow to 9.9 million people by 2036 (DPE 2018). Increased residential and commercial development and higher population density in cities mean that more people will be exposed to air pollution, due to:

  • expanded transport infrastructure and increased development along transport corridors
  • increased economic activity from industries such as mining, shipping and freight
  • increased household emissions, for example, from wood heaters and household chemical products
  • new developments exposed to smoke from hazard reduction burns and bushfires
  • higher population densities leading to increased air pollution from traffic and increased emissions from households.

Older people are particularly vulnerable to the health impacts of air pollution. This is of concern given the increasing proportion of people over the age of 65 in NSW.

See also the Population topic

In the Sydney region, motor vehicles are a significant source of ozone precursor emissions (NOx and VOCs), and particle pollution. In 2016–17, Sydney residents made 18.6 million trips each weekday, 69% of which were by car (TfNSW 2018).

The 2008 NSW GMR Air Emissions Inventory showed that in the Sydney region, motor vehicles accounted for:

  • 62% of anthropogenic NOx emissions
  • 24% of VOCs
  • 14% of as PM2.5 fine particle pollution.

In 2015–16, transport was responsible for an estimated 20.8% of greenhouse gas emissions in NSW (DEE 2018).

Ships and diesel locomotives are other sources of particles and NOx that contribute to air pollution affecting some NSW regions and communities.

See also the Transport topic

Responses

The Protection of the Environment Operations Act 1997 (POEO Act), the POEO (Clean Air) Regulation 2010 and POEO (General) Regulation 2009 set the framework for managing air pollution from major industry in NSW. These controls also help reduce localised emissions of air toxics and include provisions for managing emissions from commercial and domestic sources, such as wood smoke and open burning.

The National Clean Air Agreement enables governments to reduce air pollution and improve air quality through cooperative action with industry at national, state and local levels. Completed actions include implementation of:

  • strengthened air quality reporting standards for particles
  • new emission standards for non-road petrol engines
  • tighter wood heater emissions and efficiency standards.

Legislative changes

Wood smoke: The EPA administers wood smoke regulations in NSW and works with industry, other Australian jurisdictions and the Commonwealth Government to improve standards for heating appliances. In 2016, the NSW Government adopted a regulatory amendment requiring all new wood heaters sold in NSW to comply with updated national emission and efficiency standards. EPA audit programs help ensure wood heaters offered for sale meet these standards.

Tobacco smoke: The Smoke-free Environment Regulation 2016 strengthens the Smoke-free Environment Act 2000, while the NSW Tobacco Strategy 2012–2017 (NSW Health 2012) provides an overarching framework for reducing smoking and tobacco-related harm in NSW.

Smoking is now banned in all enclosed public places and commercial outdoor dining areas, as well as in motor vehicles when children under 16 are present.

In NSW, 9 out of 10 adults now live in a smoke-free home.

Product emissions: The Commonwealth Product Emissions Standards Act 2017 sets national maximum emission limits for specified new products sold in Australia. Emissions-controlled products covered by the Act include new outdoor power equipment such as gardening equipment and outboard motors.

Standards

Fine particles: In February 2016 a variation to the National Environment Protection (Ambient Air Quality) Measure (AAQ NEPM) commenced which:

  • formally adopts fine particle (PM2.5) standards, and
  • adds an annual average PM10 standard of 25 μg/m3.

The revised national standards for PM2.5 are more health protective than World Health Organization guidelines and are the most health protective PM2.5 standards in the world. The national review was led by the NSW Government.

For more information on the variation to the particles standards see Changes to standards and goals in the Particles section.

Managing Particles and Improving Air Quality in NSW (EPA 2013) explains the management of particle pollution in NSW and provides a set of principles and actions to reduce particle emissions.

National review of vehicle and fuel emissions: The Commonwealth Government manages fuel quality and vehicle emission standards for new road vehicles. These standards are being reviewed. The NSW Government's 2017 submissions to the Australian review supported the early introduction of stricter national standards that would:

  • meet international best practice (Euro 6/VI) emission standards for light and heavy-duty vehicles
  • introduce low sulfur (10ppm) petrol to maximise environmental and human health benefits.

Cruise ships: The Commonwealth Government regulates fuel used for all ships, including cruise ships, in Sydney Harbour and regional NSW ports. In December 2016, following NSW Government and community representations, the Australian Government introduced requirements for cruise ships to use low sulfur fuel (0.1% or less) while at berth in Sydney Harbour.

From January 2020, the International Maritime Organization will reduce the global sulfur cap from 3.5% to 0.5% for fuel and this will be the minimum requirement for all shipping.

Policy

The NSW Government Resource Efficiency Policy (GREP) (OEH 2014b) sets minimum emissions standards for mobile non-road diesel plant and equipment, such as construction equipment, purchased by NSW Government agencies. Minimum standards applied from January 2015 and were tightened in January 2018. The GREP requires agencies to:

  • collect information from construction project contractors on their equipment
  • include a weighting for lower-emission machines in their tender processes
  • use low volatility paints and surface coatings that comply with the Australian Paint Approval Scheme, where fit for purpose.

OEH is currently conducting a review of the GREP to:

  • analyse whole-of-government progress in implementing the GREP
  • identify challenges agencies faced in adopting the GREP
  • determine if reforms are required.

Diesel emissions: The Diesel and Marine Emissions Management Strategy (EPA 2015) aims to improve air quality and public health in NSW by reducing harmful emissions from non-road diesel and marine sources, such as shipping, equipment used in coal mines, locomotives, and industry activities licensed by the EPA.

Climate change: Policies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in sectors such as transport and energy can also reduce air pollution. For example, NOx is both a greenhouse gas and a contributor to photochemical smog, so strategies to reduce NOx pollution will both improve air quality and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

See responses section in Energy Consumption, Climate Change, Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Transport topics.

Monitoring NSW air quality

Monitoring air quality, conducting research, and regional airshed modelling provide a sound evidence base for developing and implementing air quality policies and programs. OEH monitors air quality in NSW and data is publicly reported. Full details are available on the OEH website. See also ‘Status and trends’.

Informing the public: OEH provides up-to-date air quality information, forecasts and alerts online, via SMS and email. This information allows communities to know about local air quality, engage in informed discussions on air quality issues, and manage their exposure when pollutant levels are high.

The EPA’s Air Emissions in my Community web tool, released in 2013 and upgraded in 2018, provides community access to information on air pollution sources in local areas within the GMR. The tool presents aggregated data and charts for different geographic areas including by local government area and by postcode.

Controlling transport emissions

Key initiatives to reduce emissions and improve health and liveability include requiring vapour recovery technology to capture VOC emissions from service stations across the Sydney, Wollongong, Central Coast and Newcastle metropolitan areas. Data from 2016–17 showed that:

  • 92% of service stations required to install vapour recovery technology at the bowser for refuelling vehicles had done so
  • 98% of service stations required to install technology to recover vapours when refilling underground storage tanks were compliant.

It is estimated that vapour recovery controls will eliminate more than 5,000 tonnes of VOC emissions per year when fully implemented.

Another key achievement has been limiting the volatility of petrol supplied in Sydney from 15 November to 15 March each year to 62 kilopascals, with petrol importers and blenders required to test batch volatility and report to the EPA.

Controlling industrial emissions

The EPA reduces industrial emissions through licensing, regulation and working in partnership with industry stakeholders on strategies to improve air quality.

Air quality impact assessment: in 2017, the EPA updated the Approved Methods for the Modelling and Assessment of Air Pollutants in New South Wales (EPA 2016) to include particle assessment criteria consistent with the 2016 revisions to the AAQ NEPM standards.

Mining and transport of coal: between 2012 and 2017, coal mine particulate emissions were reduced by about 22,000 tonnes per year. In 2016, the EPA’s Dust Stop program required key coal mines to stabilise excessive areas of land exposed to wind erosion, reducing annual particulate emissions by a further 2,000 tonnes. The practices implemented through the Dust Stop program are now part of standard mining operations throughout NSW.

Figure 8.10: Dust Stop program – Reduction in PM10 emissions (tonnes)

* You may need to scroll to the right to see the full content, or switch to landscape orientation.

This chart is interactive - click on legend or hover over chart

0237 SOE Graphic Assets web-V3-MS

Source:

EPA Dust Stop program

The Upper Hunter Valley dust risk forecasting system: From September to November 2017, the NSW Government trialled an Upper Hunter Valley Dust Risk Forecasting System. The system predicted weather that would increase dust generation, so mines could take extra precautions at those times. During the trial, the EPA required mines to record the mass of material moved each day. The EPA and OEH are now completing analysis of the results and considering the next steps in consultation with stakeholders.

Monitoring lead levels at Broken Hill: In 2016, the NSW Government commissioned monitoring of airborne lead levels at Broken Hill as part of the Broken Hill Environmental Lead Study. The monitoring aimed to identify sources of lead pollution related to mining and smelting and determine the effectiveness of remediation works.

The study was a partnership between the NSW Government and Macquarie University to:

  • monitor airborne and deposited lead
  • assess current mining emissions
  • assess legacy emissions, where lead has been resuspended from areas affected by past activities.

Controlling commercial and domestic emissions

Wood smoke program: The EPA supports councils across NSW in managing wood smoke through periodic Wood Smoke Reduction Programs and providing community educational materials for use by councils. Social research undertaken for the EPA (Databuild 2016) identified lack of awareness of wood smoke impacts on health as the key barrier to changing people’s wood heater use.

In 2017, the EPA developed a new suite of wood smoke awareness materials, which was trialled by the Upper Hunter councils of Muswellbrook and Singleton before being rolled out to councils across NSW for the winter of 2018. The local community education campaign materials are available on the EPA website.

Managing indoor air quality

Heating in schools: NSW schools and school buildings built since 2012 are no longer fitted with unflued gas heaters. Existing unflued heaters are replaced with flued gas heaters when they reach the end of their serviceable life or a school requires a heating upgrade. Schools in colder areas are prioritised for heater replacement as it is less practical for those schools to leave windows open in winter for ventilation (DoE 2016).

Building rating schemes: The National Australian Built Environment Rating System (NABERS) is a national rating system administered by OEH on behalf of all states, territories and the Australian Government. NABERS provides tools to rate the environmental impact of commercial building operations (office buildings, shopping centres, hotels, data centres and hospitals).

The NABERS Indoor Environment (IE) certification scheme assesses the quality of the indoor environment and includes an assessment of the building’s capability to provide fresh air indoors and control the concentration of indoor pollutants, including particulate matter.

As of March 2018, 126 NSW buildings had been certified with NABERS indoor environment ratings, out of 297 buildings certified nationally.

Green Star certification, administered by the Green Building Council of Australia, also includes air quality measures for rating indoor environments. Where a building has completed a NABERS Indoor Environment rating, the rating contributes to the Green Star – Performance certification.

For more information about NABERS see the Energy Consumption topic.

Emissions control

Current emission control measures being progressed under the National Clean Air Agreement include:

  • reviewing the reporting standards for sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide and ozone under the AAQ NEPM
  • evaluating the potential for a national approach to manage non-road diesel engine emissions (Commonwealth and NSW governments are co-leading this project).

Cross-agency and community collaboration

In 2016 and 2017, the EPA consulted widely on air quality issues and potential new control measures, through the Clean Air for NSW Consultation Paper (EPA/OEH 2016) and Clean Air Summit. There is ongoing engagement of stakeholders, councils and communities regionally through Community Consultative Committees, for example those in Newcastle and the Upper Hunter, as well as targeted stakeholder engagement on specific air issues and projects.

The EPA-led Interagency Taskforce on Air Quality in NSW considers whole-of-government approaches to existing and emerging air quality issues and collaborates with the EPA and OEH on air quality management and communication.

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