The toll of extreme air pollution events in Australian cities

New research centering on Australian cities has determined that, over a 20 year period, approximately 1,454 people have died due to extreme air pollution events such as bushfires and dust storms.

Furthermore, their results suggest that nearly a third of these deaths would be prevented with just a 5% reduction in PM2.5 levels on days with exceptionally poor air quality.

Fires in New South Wales in 2023

The cities on which the research focussed were Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Adelaide, Perth, Hobart, Darwin, and Australian Capital Territory, cities with a combined population of 15.5 million people.

Using air pollution monitoring data from 2001 to 2020, combined with a range of satellite and land use-related data, the team modelled the exposure to exceptional levels of PM2.5 for each extreme pollution exposure day.

Lead researcher Dr Lucas Hertzog from Curtin’s World Health Organisation Collaborating Centre for Climate Change and Health Impact Assessment discussed the results: ‘Despite relatively low daily PM2.5 levels generally (compared to global averages), Australian cities experience days with extreme pollution levels where PM2.5 concentrations exceed the WHO Air Quality Guideline standard.

‘Sydney and Melbourne reported the highest number of deaths attributable to extreme air pollution events, with 541 and 438 deaths respectively, followed by Brisbane and Perth with 171 and 132 deaths.’

The team also modelled a scenario in which people were not exposed to the smokiest 5 % of exceptional PM2.5 days and, using analysis exploring sensitivities to changes in the PM2.5 levels, found that a third of attributable deaths would have been avoided.

The researchers acknowledge that, as the effectiveness of bushfire management is unpredictable and possibly beyond the scope of local authorities to mitigate, they still have a vital role in regulating wood heaters, reducing emissions from road transport, controlling industrial sources of air pollution.

Dr Hertzog: ‘While responding to bushfires and dust storms is an increasingly challenging task, authorities have a crucial role in land use management. They also regulate energy policy and control wood heater regulations. Additional strategies to reduce emissions from industrial accidents or road transport-related smog events could enhance the control of sources of air pollution and improve well-being.

‘It is also possible to reduce the burden of mortality by improving public health warnings and increasing community awareness of smoke avoidance behaviours.’



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