Victoria’s air quality is good overall by international standards. However, densely populated areas can have poor air quality because of motor vehicle emissions, industry, and household activities such as burning wood for heating. Air quality can also be affected by fire, including bushfires, industrial fires and planned burns.

What the indicators tell us

Air quality is generally fair or good in the places where it is measured in Victoria. High levels of particle pollution are found in Brooklyn in Melbourne’s inner west, but this is the only indicator with a ‘poor’ status. Most of the indicators are trending upwards or staying stable. Only odour and noise pollution are deteriorating.

Themes and indicators: How does Victoria measure up?

Ambient air pollutants

Note that:

  1. The data for these indicators (A:01 to A:04) has been sourced from EPA Victoria’s air-monitoring database (MONSYS).

  2. The data included in these indicators does not contain all of EPA Victoria’s air-monitoring stations. However, stations have been selected for inclusion in this report based on their length of operation (so as to provide a trend), proximity to populated areas and frequency of peak results.

  3. Data for Geelong comes from two sites (Geelong #1 from 1991 to 1996, and Geelong South from 1998 to 2017).

  4. Data for Melbourne City comes from four sites (Science Museum from 1981 to 1986, Parliament from 1992 to 1995, RMIT from 1996 to 2006, and Richmond from 2007 to 2014).

  5. The data included in these indicators is only taken from monitoring equipment that meets current or historical reference criteria for assessment against the legislated air-quality standards in Australia and Victoria (For example, PM2.5 data includes only data measured by a Partisol or Beta Attenuation Monitor.)

  6. Air-quality standards used in the assessment of these indicators come from the State Environment Protection Policy (Ambient Air Quality).

Stratospheric air pollutants

Amenity

Air pollutants: Sources

Health

More detail

Background

Good air quality is essential for human health. The links between air quality, population exposure and health are an increasing focus for research and policy development. The greatest adverse health effects from air pollution are usually experienced in densely populated areas that are exposed to emissions from motor vehicles, industrial facilities and domestic activities (such as using wood heaters), while significant smoke impacts from bushfires and planned burns (for example, fuel reduction, coupe and ecological burns) can cause poor air quality in urban and rural areas.

Victoria’s air quality is considered good relative to international standards, although poor air quality is still measured near major industrial facilities, during major incidents (such as bushfires, industrial fires and dust storms) and during periods of planned burns.

Recently, poor air quality in populated areas has been recorded for multiple consecutive days near major fires – notably the Hazelwood mine fire in 2014, the industrial fire at a recycling facility near Coolaroo in 2017 and the peat fires near Cobden in 2018.

Between 1996 and 2013, the length of the fire season in eastern Australia has increased, in association with climate change. This has necessitated more intensive fuel reduction burns over shorter periods. As fuel reduction burns must be undertaken during calm weather conditions that facilitate the buildup of air pollution, more intense burn programs increase the risk of widespread particle pollution.

As Victoria’s population increases, and the average age of the population increases, the health impacts of poor air quality are likely to increase, unless there is a decrease in air pollution. Climate change will compound existing threats: higher temperatures and longer periods of reduced rainfall are likely to increase the risk of frequent and severe fires and dust storms and exacerbate conditions for summer smog formation.

Environment Protection Authority Victoria (EPA Victoria) has increased the number of air-monitoring stations since the publication of SoE 2013. EPA Victoria now monitors air quality at 19 sites across Victoria – 12 in Melbourne (Figure A.1), 5 in the Latrobe Valley (Figure A.2) and 1 each in Geelong and Wangaratta. Since the 2014 Hazelwood mine fire, EPA Victoria has worked with the Latrobe Valley community to design a more extensive air-monitoring network in the region.

Map of EPA Victoria air-monitoring stations in Melbourne and Geelong

Figure A.1 EPA Victoria air-monitoring stations in Melbourne and Geelong

(Image source: EPA Victoria)

Map of EPA Victoria air-monitoring stations in the Latrobe Valley

Figure A.2 EPA Victoria air-monitoring stations in the Latrobe Valley

(Image source: EPA Victoria)

Despite EPA Victoria expanding its air-monitoring network, a 2018 Victorian Auditor-General’s Office (VAGO) report found it cannot demonstrate that its current monitoring provides a representative measure of ambient air quality across the state. The VAGO report recommended an expanded air-monitoring network for Victoria that better aligns coverage with pollution risks.

Studies investigating the long-term health effects of air pollution have been conducted in Australia,, but there is no comprehensive understanding of the impacts on human health. Few long-term studies that document the association between mortality and air pollution exposure have been carried out in Australia. Given the delay between the publication of long-term studies and policy development, it is important to complement longer studies with epidemiological studies that generate useful associations between air pollution and health impacts from just a few years of data. There is a large body of evidence demonstrating that air pollution, even at concentrations below the current air-quality standards, is associated with adverse health effects. The strongest evidence relates to premature mortality and effects on the respiratory and cardiovascular system.

Odour and noise can also impact wellbeing, while excessive exposure to noise can impact human health. Odour is the most frequent type of pollution report received by EPA Victoria, prompting about 4,000 reports per year. Common sources of odour pollution are landfills and composting facilities, animal processing and intensive agriculture.

The critical challenges facing Victoria’s air-quality management now and in the future include:

  • reducing air-pollution emissions and population exposure to air pollution emissions

  • reducing human health impacts associated with an increasing and ageing population, particularly during pollution events and in areas with greater air-pollution emissions

  • expanding Victoria’s air-monitoring network to include a greater coverage across regional Victoria and some areas of Melbourne, as well as including targeted roadside air-monitoring sites

  • improving understanding of the sources and extent of air pollution through better monitoring and reporting and a more comprehensive pollution inventory

  • improving knowledge of the link between air quality and health, particularly during short-to--medium pollution events (for example, the effects of being exposed to significant amounts of smoke from bushfires, industrial fires or planned burns)

  • ensuring suitable buffer protection measures are in place between odorous industries and residential communities

  • identifying opportunities to include air quality in urban planning decisions, particularly in relation to urban green space, and opportunities to reduce reliance on causes of pollution (for example, motor vehicles)

  • identifying and managing the effects of climate change on the impact of pollution from bushfires, planned burns, summer smog formation and dust storms.

Current Victorian Government Settings

In May 2018, the Victorian Government released Clean Air for All Victorians – Victoria’s Air Quality Statement. The statement contains ideas on what could be done to protect Victoria’s air quality through to 2030. Public comments on the statement, and a subsequent Clean Air Summit and workshops, are informing the development of a Victorian Clean Air Strategy for release in 2019. The Victorian Government has allocated $1.2 million to develop this strategy, which will articulate policy and programs to underpin air-quality management to 2030.

In 2016, a Ministerial Advisory Committee (MAC) completed its inquiry into EPA Victoria. One of the MAC’s recommendations was for EPA Victoria to ‘assess the adequacy of its air and water monitoring networks, particularly in relation to air quality and consider options to improve data sharing and accessibility, and community communication’ (recommendation 6.3). Another recommendation was to ‘create a consolidated and enhanced environmental health capability for Victoria within the EPA, with appropriate governance arrangements recognising its critical relationship with the Department of Health and Human Services’ (recommendation 6.2), which was completed in December 2016.

The Victorian Government is investing $182.4 million to reform EPA Victoria into a modern environmental regulator focused on preventing pollution, and to give the agency stronger powers and tools to prevent and manage instances of air pollution. The Environment Protection Act 1970 has been reformed through two pieces of legislation: the Environment Protection Act 2017, which establishes EPA Victoria as a statutory authority and legislates the role of its board, chief executive officer and chief environmental scientist, and the Environment Protection Amendment Act 2018, which provides the foundation for transforming Victoria’s environment protection laws. The Victorian Government intends for this new legislation to take effect from 1 July 2020.

The updated legislation provides the foundation for the following changes:

  • a preventative approach through a general environmental duty

  • a tiered system of EPA Victoria permissions to support risk-based and proportionate regulatory oversight

  • significant reforms to contaminated land and waste management

  • increased maximum penalties

  • requirements for more environmental information to be publicly available

  • modernising and strengthening EPA Victoria’s compliance and enforcement powers.

The 2018 VAGO report, Improving Victoria’s Air Quality, recommended EPA Victoria:

  • expand its air-monitoring network

  • improve its reporting on air quality

  • expand and update its knowledge of Victoria’s air quality

  • work with all relevant councils to address air-quality issues at the Brooklyn Industrial Precinct

  • work with the Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning (DELWP) to clarify the roles and responsibilities of relevant Victorian Government agencies with respect to air-quality management.

DELWP and EPA Victoria have accepted all recommendations of the VAGO report and are commencing actions to address them.

National and state ambient air quality legislation was amended in 2016 to reflect the adoption of annual and daily PM2.5 standards and an annual PM10 standard. The Victorian annual PM10 standard was set to a much more stringent level than the national standard. The amendment also included a future tightening of the particle standards in 2025.

Some regulations relevant to this chapter have been revised, or are in the process of being revised, including the:

  • Environment Protection (Vehicle Emissions) Regulations

  • State Environment Protection Policy (Control of Noise from Commerce, Industry and Trade) No. N-1

  • State Environment Protection Policy (Control of Music Noise from Public Premises) No. N-2

  • Environment Protection (Residential Noise) Regulations 2008.

Other noise policies related to the material presented in indicator Odour and noise include the standard for internal noise levels in apartment developments located near noise sources. This standard was introduced in the planning framework in 2017.

VicRoads administers a traffic noise reduction policy that was developed in 2005 and sets noise criteria for freeways and aims to limit noise impacts from new or upgraded roads.

In the absence of a coordinated indoor air quality strategy or policy document, there are federal guidance documents relevant to indoor air quality published by the Department of the Environment and Energy, the Australian Building Codes Board, and the Department of Health.

Future Focus

Improved air quality assessment capability

EPA Victoria currently compiles an air pollution inventory to quantify the sources of air pollution spatially and temporally across Victoria. However, the immediacy of data access is an issue, with data generally not available until at least two years after the base year of the pollution inventory. Future versions of the inventory need to be more dynamic - and coupled with meteorology and ambient air quality modelling. Blending air monitoring and modelling will enable more robust and real-time assessments of the Victorian population’s exposure to air pollution.

As determined by VAGO, Victoria’s current air monitoring network is inadequate and needs to be expanded to cover more of regional Victoria, the growth areas of Melbourne and have the flexibility to target hot-spots such as major roadsides and industrial areas. This is an opportunity to ensure adequate air monitoring in disadvantaged communities and, by working with the Victorian community, to design a comprehensive and targeted monitoring network. Monitoring must be expanded to include ultrafine particles and would include consultation with the National Environment Protection Council to determine whether an ambient air quality standard is required for ultrafine particles.

In 2016, a Ministerial Advisory Committee (MAC) completed its inquiry into EPA Victoria. The MAC’s recommendations included for EPA to ‘assess the adequacy of its air and water monitoring networks, particularly in relation to air quality and consider options to improve data sharing and accessibility, and community communication’ (recommendation 6.3); and implement, through DELWP, statewide environmental monitoring, a spatial data system and reporting on outcomes (recommendation 7.2).

It is critical that the implementation of these two recommendations be prioritised and expedited to enable comprehensive real time, or near real time, estimates of air pollution across Victoria, including areas currently without local air monitoring stations. The results would be published online and clearly explained so any member of the community is able to understand their local air quality, while health researchers would be able to use the data to develop population exposure metrics.

The Air section identifies the significant knowledge gap for indoor air quality in Victoria. This is significant considering that Victorians are likely to spend up to 90% of their time indoors.

It is also critical to couple improved data on population exposure with modern health studies that improve understanding of the health effects associated with air pollution in Victoria, particularly incorporating indoor air quality. There needs to be an ongoing commitment to epidemiology in Victoria, and to push the boundaries of this science to shift the focus to developing accurate exposure metrics. Being able to quantify and understand the population’s exposure to air pollution will be an essential component of air quality management in the future, enabling the development of future air quality policies and for timely assessments to be made on the effectiveness of policy interventions.

Recommendation: That EPA Victoria prioritise the implementation of the EPA Inquiry Recommendations 6.3 and 7.2 to develop a publicly accessible, real-time assessment of air quality across Victoria that incorporates air quality monitoring data, citizen science observations, air quality modelling, and an up-to-date air pollution inventory. Future monitoring and assessments could be expanded to include ultrafine particles and data on indoor air quality.

Pollen Monitoring

Improve community access to timely information on pollen levels in air

Up to 50% of the population have the potential to suffer from the allergy conditions of hay fever and seasonal asthma, with 25% of the population suffering regularly.

Pollen is monitored at eight locations across Victoria, with a single measurement recorded and reported every 24 hours at each location through a process reliant on significant manual work. Recent investment in this field has focussed on enhancing pollen forecasting - and a six-day outlook of daily pollen forecasts is now provided for the eight locations with pollen monitors. Additional three-day epidemic thunderstorm asthma forecasts are provided by region across the state. This information is available to the general-public online and via a mobile phone app, Melbourne Pollen Count. Users of the app can help researchers by answering a hay fever symptom survey.

Many Victorians are affected by pollen levels and pollen is a factor in the formation of epidemic thunderstorm asthma events, future SoE reports will include an indicator that reports on the status and trends of pollen levels. The advances in forecasting need to be complemented by a contemporary pollen monitoring network that operates with statewide coverage, increased automation and real-time observations. The ability to measure pollen on an hourly, or at minimum three-hourly, basis would enable the development of a pollen profile that would enhance the ability of allergy sufferers to reduce their exposure risk and forecasters to produce forecasts at a finer time resolution than a daily forecast. Developments in technology are leading to increasing automation of pollen monitoring in other parts of the world, with eight automatic pollen monitors installed in Bavaria, Germany during 2018.,

Recommendation: That Victoria’s Chief Environmental Scientist, supported by relevant government agencies and research partners, lead the establishment of a contemporary pollen monitoring network to enable community access to information on pollen levels in the air in a timely manner, through actions including increasing the number of locations monitored, the frequency of the monitoring, and automating the monitoring process.

UN Environmental Economic Accounts

Under the System of Environmental-Economic Accounting (SEEA), air pollution is categorised as a residual flow from the economy to the environment. An air emissions account records the connection between economic activity and flows of waste to the atmosphere by reporting the generation of air emissions by economic units (such as industry sectors, government and households) and by type of pollutant. Tracking this connection over time, along with economic activity, can help highlight trends in the relative contributions of different sectors, including levels expected with growth in economic activity. This type of account can also be used to assess efforts by government, industry and households to reduce emissions.

Air pollution can reduce amenity, and exposure to air pollution can cause a number of adverse health effects and even death. Cardiovascular and respiratory impacts are most common and contribute to increased general practice and hospital presentations, hospital admissions and general health-system use.

The impact of air pollution on people and the environment already appears to some extent in Victoria’s traditional economic accounts (the System of National Accounts). For example, impacts would be captured as expenditure in the health system from doctor visits and hospital admissions, medication costs, productivity losses from absenteeism and costs related to premature death. However, the amounts attributable to air pollution are not identified in the traditional accounts.

A 2014 study suggested that the annual costs of air pollution in Australia may be more than $24 billion. Expenditure to prevent and manage health impacts from air pollution currently count towards Victoria’s gross state product, rather than being recorded as a cost to the Victorian community.

The SEEA framework also recognises the benefit that environmental assets provide through the ecosystem service of air-quality regulation, for example with vegetation improving air quality as it absorbs or traps particles, air toxics, sulfur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide.

However, ecosystems can also be a source of air emissions that flow from the environment to the economy. Australian native vegetation can increase the level of ozone and secondary particle pollution through emission of natural volatile organic compounds, with a consequent impact on human health. Forest and grass fires are a key source of emissions from the environment to the economy.

An ecosystem asset account linked to ecosystem services and benefits would record these connections between the environment and the economy, showing both the quantity of pollutants removed and produced by environmental assets, and the impact of this on air quality and the corresponding benefit (or cost) to the Victorian community in terms of reduced exposure to air pollution and avoided health impacts.

As outlined above, air-quality regulation is complex and the amount and value of air-quality regulation provided in any location in Victoria would vary depending on topographic and air shed (atmospheric) characteristics; the amount, type and location of vegetation in relation to pollution sources and populations; and the population density, with greater benefits in higher-density areas, as more people would benefit from improvements in air quality.

In addition to air-quality regulation, ecosystems also provide important noise regulation services. Noise pollution can directly affect people, harming health and reducing amenity. Ecosystems play an important role in reducing noise as vegetation forms natural noise reduction infrastructure. For example, vegetated areas near busy roads can help reduce the impact of noise pollution from traffic.

Case studies

Thunderstorm asthma

Environmental factors played a large part in Melbourne’s thunderstorm asthma event of November 2016.

Image: https://www.flickr.com/photos/romaurei/

The environment and our health

On 21 November 2016, Melbourne experienced a catastrophic thunderstorm asthma event.

  • 12,723 patients presented at emergency departments across Victoria – 44% more than usual.

  • Emergency departments saw a 672% increase in respiratory-related presentations within a 30-hour period

  • 3841 more people than usual were admitted to hospital for respiratory distress and asthma.

As a result of the thunderstorm, 10 people died.

A study in the medical journal The Lancet suggests the likely cause of the event was a combination of environmental factors such as:

  • a north-south line of thunderstorms that swept eastwards

  • a front of wind gusts

  • a sudden drop in temperature

  • a sudden increase in humidity

  • extremely high levels of airborne grass pollen.

A deadly combination

Thunderstorm asthma occurs when a large number of people develop asthma symptoms over a short period of time because of high amounts of grass pollen and a certain type of thunderstorm.

In the Melbourne thunderstorm asthma event, there was a very high concentration of ryegrass pollen in the air. The rain and moisture in the air ruptured the pollen grains, releasing starch granules. Instead of staying high in the air as they normally would, the airflow from the thunderstorm brought the granules to land, which meant they could enter people’s lungs as they breathed.

Could it happen again?

Extremely high levels of airborne ryegrass pollens are reasonably rare in Melbourne, and vary from year to year. However, the Lancet study suggests that climate change might mean extended pollen seasons and an increasing likelihood of extreme weather events such as thunderstorms.

What to do to prevent and manage thunderstorm asthma

Asthma Australia recommends preventative and management measures including:

  • Discussing the risk and possibility of thunderstorm asthma with your doctor

  • Having an asthma management plan

  • If you have asthma, avoid allergens around times of high pollen by staying indoors with no open windows

  • Following asthma management plan including taking preventer medications

Source: Taylor & Jonsson 2004

Thunderstorm asthma facts

Thunderstorm asthma is triggered by a combination of high pollen and a certain type of thunderstorm.

Those affected do not necessarily have a history of asthma, but people with asthma and hay fever are most at risk.

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Co-designing air monitoring in the Latrobe Valley

The Latrobe Valley community has long had concerns about air quality in the area – now they’ve helped design a new monitoring network.

Collaborating through co-design

Co-design is a way of involving a community in making decisions about issues that directly affect them.

In 2016, the Environmental Protection Authority Victoria (EPA) and the Latrobe Valley community collaborated to design a more extensive EPA air monitoring network for the region.

Harnessing the power of citizen science, more than 30 community members participated – first learning how air quality is measured, and where different types of air monitoring equipment can be positioned to work best. Armed with this knowledge, and supported by the EPA’s air scientists and local experts, the community participants worked over three panel sessions to develop a single model for the air monitoring network. Both the community and the EPA had an equal say in what that model should be.

Adapting to change

The new co-designed Latrobe Valley Air Monitoring Network covers more of the Latrobe Valley and uses different kinds of monitors that can be moved depending on circumstances. For example, monitoring was needed in different places before and after the Hazelwood Power Station closed. Video cameras will help monitor visible signs of air pollution such as dust and smoke.

Pilot

The network designed by the panel will be trialled for a year after it is rolled out in 2018, and the EPA is staying in contact with and consulting the co-design panel over this time. The EPA has also committed to working in consultation with the broader Latrobe Valley community through and beyond the trial.

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