Increased pollution

2016

Production and consumption activities occurring in our built environments often lead to increased pollution in our built and natural environments. Pollution can lead to human and ecological health issues associated with the quality of Australia’s land, air and water resources (discussed further in State and trends of the built environment). This section identifies some of the land, air and water pollution issues that can be associated with the built environment.

Land

One large and significant effect of increased consumption (and production) activities is an increase in solid waste generation. Solid waste that is not re-used or recovered largely ends up in managed landfill. Australia has approximately 1168 landfills (DoEE n.d.[b]), which handle approximately 20 million tonnes of waste each year, with 8 per cent of Australia’s landfills (classified as large) accepting 75 per cent of the waste (Pickin 2013). Australia’s National Waste Policy has clear goals to reduce the amount of waste for disposal, and that ‘all wastes, including hazardous wastes, will be managed in a way that is consistent with Australia’s international obligations and for the protection of human health and the environment’ (DoEE n.d.[c]).

Despite increases in population and economic growth, the amount of solid waste being sent to landfill has been decreasing in recent years. Landfills mostly operate under close regulatory control of jurisdictional environmental regulators; they need to be managed for odour, leachate, fire risks, litter and problem wastes (Pickin 2013).

Hazardous wastes are a particular concern because of their potentially harmful effects on humans and the environment, despite their small amounts. They are highly dependent on the level of regulatory control. There are a range of hazardous wastes, with a range of fates (including landfill, recycling, chemical/physical treatment, biodegradation and incineration). Overall, hazardous waste volumes have increased during the past few years—from 4.6 million tonnes in 2010–11 to 5.7 million tonnes in 2013–14. The quantity of hazardous waste is projected to rise to approximately 9.9 million tonnes in 2033–34. This represents an average growth rate of 2.8 per cent per year, compared with a projected average population growth rate of 1.5 per cent, and is equivalent to the long-term projected economic growth rate (Latimer 2015).

Of the total national hazardous waste sources in 2012–13, contaminated soils amounted to 1.4 million tonnes, or more than one-quarter of hazardous waste. Other major contributors were oils (699,160 tonnes), asbestos (640,613 tonnes), grease-trap waste (544,619 tonnes) and tyres (424,557 tonnes). The bulk of contaminated soils and asbestos ends up in landfill (Latimer 2015).

Soil waste generally occurs because of construction and development activities, such as redevelopment of former industrial areas for residential purposes. Contaminated soil wastes reflect a special case in hazardous waste management because site contamination is largely a historical legacy issue. The annual quantities of other hazardous wastes are more directly related to consumption patterns, reflecting current rather than historical activity (Plant et al. 2014).

Plant et al. (2014), in their report Contaminated soil wastes in Australia, assessed that data on contaminated soil waste in Australia are very patchy and of poor quality. Tracking, reporting and auditing processes vary between jurisdictions, but are generally emerging. Many jurisdictions are improving their systems against a backdrop of broader regulatory review.

Lithium-ion batteries are an emerging hazardous waste. Based on conservative estimates, there could be 20 per cent annual growth in these wastes, taking them to more than 136,000 tonnes by 2036. If not appropriately managed, waste lithium-ion batteries pose a fire and explosion risk to all resource recovery and landfill infrastructure (Lewis 2016).

Air

Regardless of the source of air pollution, it continues to be a major human health concern, given the known respiratory and cardiovascular effects, and recently recognised carcinogenic properties, of air pollutants (Table BLT1; see also the Atmosphere report for a detailed analysis of sources of air pollution). Sensitive individuals (children, older people and those with existing respiratory and/or cardiovascular disease) are particularly susceptible to air pollution. Other concerns with air pollution include environmental impacts, economic costs and impacts on our quality of life, especially in our cities and towns (Australian Government 2015a).

Table BLT1 Health effects of ambient air pollution

Air pollutant

Effects related to short-term exposure

Effects related to long-term exposure

Particulate matter

  • Lung inflammation
  • Respiratory symptoms
  • Adverse effects on the cardiovascular system
  • Increased medication use
  • Increased hospitalisations
  • Increased mortality
  • Increased lower respiratory symptoms
  • Reduced lung function in children
  • Increased chronic obstructive pulmonary disease
  • Reduced lung function in adults
  • Reduced life expectancy, mainly because of cardiopulmonary mortality and (probably) lung cancer

Ozone

  • Adverse effects on lung function
  • Lung inflammatory reactions
  • Adverse effects on the respiratory system
  • Increased medication use
  • Increased hospitalisations
  • Increased mortality
  • Reduced lung function 

Nitrogen dioxide

  • Effects on lung function, especially in asthmatics
  • Increased airway allergic inflammatory reactions
  • Increased hospitalisations
  • Increased mortality
  • Reduced lung function
  • Increased probability of respiratory symptoms

Sulfur dioxide

  • Effects on lung function, especially in asthmatics
  • Increased hospitalisations
  • Increased mortality
  • Probably reduced life expectancy

Source: WHO (2004)

Annual mortality attributable to current short-term ozone exposure above background is estimated to be equal to about 2240 deaths (or 3.4 per cent at typical ages) across Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Perth. In addition, annual attendance by children at hospital emergency departments is estimated to be 660 (or 3.1 per cent of cases) across the 4 cities.

For nitrogen dioxide, annual mortality attributable to current short-term exposure above background level is estimated to be equivalent to 2.8 per cent of deaths at typical ages across the 4 cities. Hospital admissions attributable to current short-term nitrogen dioxide exposure above background are expected to rise, and—averaged across the 4 cities—annual attendances for asthma at hospital emergency departments are estimated to be 6.7 per cent of cases.

Averaged across Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Perth, annual hospital admissions for respiratory illness for people aged over 65 attributable to current short-term daily 1-hour sulfur dioxide exposure above background are estimated to be 2.3 per cent of cases.

Particulate matter (PM) (Tables BLT2 and BLT3) of different sizes originating from anthropogenic and natural sources is of concern:

  • PM10 (PM less than 10 microns in size) is mainly generated from suspension or resuspension of dust, soil and other material from roads, farming, mining and dust storms. It also includes sea salt, pollens, moulds and spores.
  • PM2.5 (PM less than 2.5 microns in size) is mainly from direct emissions from combustion processes, such as petrol and diesel vehicles, wood burning, coal burning for power generation, and industrial activities such as smelters, cement plants, paper mills and steel mills.
Table BLT2 Estimates of PM2.5-attributable annual mortality and hospitalisation, Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Perth, averaged across 2006–10

Health outcome

Time period

Scenario

Attributable cases (no.)

Attributable cases (%)

All-cause mortality, ≥30 years

Long-term exposure

Current

1586

2.2% (1.4–3.0%)

Scenario 1: 10 µg/m3

+760 (+48%)

 

Scenario 2: 8 µg/m3

+110 (+7%)

 

Scenario 3: 6 µg/m3

–533 (–34%)

 

Cardiovascular hospital admissions, all ages

Short-term exposure

Current

2067

1.4% (0.6–2.1%)

Scenario 1: 25 µg/m3

–481 (–23%)

 

Scenario 2: 20 µg/m3

–837 (–40%)

 

Scenario 3: 15 µg/m3

–1189 (–58%)

 

Hospital emergency department attendance for asthma, 1–14 years

Short-term exposure

Current

124

0.6% (0.4–0.8%)

Scenario 1: 25 µg/m3

–34 (–27%)

 

Scenario 2: 20 µg/m3

–54 (–43%)

 

Scenario 3: 15 µg/m3

–74 (–59%)

 

µg/m3 = micrograms per cubic metre

Source: Morgan et al. (2013)

Table BLT3 Estimates of PM10-attributable annual mortality and hospitalisation, Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Perth, averaged across 2006–10

Health outcome

Time period

Scenario

Attributable cases (no.)

Attributable cases (%)

Hospital admissions for respiratory illness, 0–14 years

Short-term exposure

Current

1130

2.2% (0.2–4.3%)

Scenario 1: 50 µg/m3

–373 (–33%)

 

Scenario 2: 40 µg/m3

–588 (–49%)

 

Scenario 3: 30 µg/m3

–733 (–65%)

 

Hospital admissions for pneumonia and acute bronchitis, ≥65 years

Short-term exposure

Current

529

2.5% (0.3–5.0%)

Scenario 1: 50 µg/m3

–175 (–33%)

 

Scenario 2: 40 µg/m3

–255 (–49%)

 

Scenario 3: 30 µg/m3

–344 (–65%)

 

µg/m3 = micrograms per cubic metre

Source: Morgan et al. (2013)

Multiple future factors run the risk of accelerating air pollution and the impacts of air quality in Australia:

  • Population growth. As noted previously, Australia’s urban areas will come under increased pressure as the population grows. This increased population will drive increased air pollution from both domestic and industrial sources, unless per-person levels decrease significantly.
  • Urbanisation. By 2061, an estimated 74 per cent of Australians, compared with 66 per cent in 2012, are expected to live in a capital city—areas where people are more likely to be exposed to many sources of pollution. There is also likely to be increased development of higher-density housing on arterial roads and more heavily trafficked roads, resulting in increased exposure to environmental pollution.
  • Increased transport and energy demands. The Australian transport sector is growing and will continue to rely heavily on oil during the next 20 years (Australian Government 2015a). Diesel as a source of air pollution is increasing. From 2002–03 to 2013–14, the proportion of diesel used in the Australian market increased, whereas petrol became relatively less important. This growth can be attributed to a general growth in industrial activity and related diesel-fuelled vehicles, and to the growth in supply of diesel-powered passenger vehicles to consumers. Australia’s diesel fleet increased during the 2000s, for both industry and households (ABS 2016b).
  • Ageing population. The number of Australians aged 65 and over is projected to more than double by 2054–55. An ageing population may be more susceptible to the effects of air pollution.

Indoor air quality and occupational exposure may also be increasing pressures, but these remain poorly measured and monitored (Maclennan et al. 2015).

Water

Increased urbanisation increasingly involves the transformation of pervious landscapes (which allow water to pass through, such as soils) into impervious landscapes (which block water, such as concrete). In impervious landscapes, water must be managed through drainage systems.

Water entering waterways from hard surfaces or drains can be a significant problem for the health of aquatic habitats. In addition to land clearing in catchments, the increase of land surface under hard surfaces, especially in more urbanised areas, can lead to an increased volume and velocity of water entering watercourses. In addition, pollutants are initially built up on impervious surfaces and then washed off by rainfall and storm water. Run-off from these events can carry topsoil, chemicals, rubbish, nutrients, and oil and grease from roads into waterways, which then can cause algal blooms or kill fish in waterways (NSW DPI 2016). Table BLT4 shows the effects of increased imperviousness on waterway ecology and processes.

Table BLT4 Effects of increased imperviousness on waterway ecology and system processes

Increased imperviousness leads to

Flooding

Habitat loss

Erosion

Channel widening

Streambed alteration

Increased volume

Y

Y

Y

Y

Y

Increased peak flow

Y

Y

Y

Y

Y

Increased peak duration

Y

Y

Y

Y

Y

Increased stream temperature

N

Y

N

N

N

Decreased base flow

N

Y

N

N

N

Sediment loading changes

Y

Y

Y

Y

Y

Source: Chalmers & Grey (2004)

Transport-related surfaces (roads, driveways and carparks) comprise up to 70 per cent of impervious surfaces in built catchments. Stormwater pollutants originate from a variety of nonpoint sources, including motor vehicles, construction activities, erosion and surface degradation, spills, and leachates. Oils, surfactants and litter also have ecological impacts in addition to a more immediate aesthetic impact (Chalmers & Gray 2004).

Two common pollutants in urban storm water that can have negative impacts on human health are heavy metals and polycyclic hydrocarbons. Exposure to heavy metals can lead to conditions such as headache, hypertension and renal dysfunction, and polycyclic hydrocarbons are carcinogenic to the skin, lungs and bladder (Ma et al. 2016).

Pollutant concentration levels have increased with urbanisation. For example, the amount of phosphorus applications in a typical Perth residential area is estimated to be 40 kilograms per hectare per year. Water quality can also be an issue for regional and remote communities. Some remote communities suffer from polluted drinking water, to the extent that bottled water is provided to parts of the community (see Box BLT8).

Coleman S (2016). Built environment: Increased pollution. In: Australia state of the environment 2016, Australian Government Department of the Environment and Energy, Canberra, https://soe.environment.gov.au/theme/built-environment/topic/2016/increased-pollution, DOI 10.4226/94/58b65a5037ed8