Health impacts of air pollution


The major aim of monitoring and reducing air pollution is to reduce its adverse impacts on human health. Other aims are to prevent loss of amenity—for example, because of poor visibility or offensive odour, damage to vegetation, and corrosion of buildings and other infrastructure.

Epidemiological and controlled exposure studies have shown that the relationship between higher levels of air pollution and human health impacts is statistically significant. For example, PM can result in decreased lung function, increased respiratory symptoms, increased chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, increased cardiovascular and cardiopulmonary disease, and increased mortality (Pope & Dockery 2006). Associated with these health outcomes, research has identified a strong link between the levels of PM2.5 and life expectancy (Pope et al. 2009). Australia does not have such widespread or hazardous levels of air pollution as some other countries, but the 2005 Australian multicity study (EPHC 2010a) established that there were significant impacts of air pollution on the morbidity and mortality of Australia’s population.

Since SoE 2011, evidence for the influence of air pollutants on health has continued to mount. In 2013, the International Agency for Research on Cancer classified outdoor air pollution and one of its major components, PM, as carcinogenic to human health (Loomis et al. 2013). The Global Burden of Disease study demonstrated an increase in noncommunicable diseases in adults, such as cardiovascular disease and respiratory problems, caused partly by exposure to airborne PM (Lim et al. 2012). Another study published in 2013, comparing levels of air pollution across 14 sites in 9 countries, found links between high levels of air pollution and low birth weights. Weight at birth is a factor affecting children’s health, including the risk of infection and developmental delays (Dadvand et al. 2013).

The 2013 World Health Organization Review of evidence on health aspects of air pollution examined newly accumulated scientific evidence on the adverse effects on health of PM, ozone and nitrogen dioxide, at levels commonly present in Europe (WHO 2013). The review supported the scientific conclusions of the World Health Organization’s air quality guidelines, last updated in 2005, and indicates that effects can occur at air pollution concentrations lower than those on which the guidelines are based. It also provides a strong scientific argument for taking decisive actions to improve air quality and reduce the burden of disease associated with air pollution. In other words, the new evidence no longer supports the notion that there is a safe level for pollutant concentrations.

The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW 2016, Begg 2007) has estimated that about 3000 deaths (equivalent to about 28,000 years of life lost) are attributable to urban air pollution in Australia each year (Figure ATM29). The health costs from mortality alone are estimated to be in the order of $11–24 billion per year (Begg 2007, Access Economics 2008). The health risk assessment undertaken for the review of Australia’s air quality standards (Golder Associates 2013) found that the most severe effects, in terms of overall health burden, were linked to long-term exposure to high levels of PM. Better control of nonroad spark-ignition engines and equipment to reduce emissions could avoid health costs by up to $1.7 billion (COAG 2015a).

Dennekamp et al. (2015) found an association between out-of-hospital cardiac arrest and PM2.5 in Melbourne during the summer of 2006–07, when smoke from fires burning in the alpine region affected Melbourne residents. In February and March 2014, a fire in the Morwell open-cut mine in Gippsland, Victoria, blanketed Morwell and the surrounding area in smoke for about 6 weeks, prompting the Victorian Chief Health Officer to recommend the temporary evacuation of vulnerable residents from the town to avoid immediate adverse health effects. In response to community concerns about the long-term health effects of smoke exposure, the Hazelwood Health Study was commissioned, which will identify potential impacts.

Keywood MD, Emmerson KM, Hibberd MF (2016). Ambient air quality: Health impacts of air pollution. In: Australia state of the environment 2016, Australian Government Department of the Environment and Energy, Canberra,, DOI 10.4226/94/58b65c70bc372