Suburban air pollution from trucks a national failure

Residents have been protesting against the number of trucks on residential streets for more than 10 years. Photo:

More people die from air pollution in Australia than the road toll, Greens Senator Richard Di Natale told a public meeting in Melbourne’s inner-west municipality of Maribyrnong on October 23.

Di Natale instigated the recent Senate inquiry into the effects of air pollution on human health, which concluded in August. He said there had been a “catastrophic failure in this country to monitor air quality”.

About 21,000 trucks pass through Maribyrnong each day, say VicRoads and local council figures. This is a big contributor to air pollution in the area, which the Maribyrnong City Council outlined in a submission to the inquiry.

Di Natale told the meeting the inquiry identified “about half a dozen” areas across Australia that suffer serious air pollution similar to Maribyrnong from a range of sources including coalmining, transport, and power generation; diesel exhaust from trucks; and wood heating.

Residents' groups in Maribyrnong have been protesting against the growing number of trucks on residential streets for more than 10 years, since container yards began to move from the nearby docks area to industrial estates in the western suburbs. Diesel exhaust pollution has been a prime concern for residents. Government reports show it was at unacceptable levels as early as 2001.

Di Natale said present air pollution monitoring was inadequate. “The system for monitoring air pollution needs an overhaul, standards are too weak.”

He said monitoring practices aim to identify the average exposure to the community, not the peaks or the people most at risk such as those living next to a freeway.

“Just because standards are not exceeded on a particular day does not mean people are safe,” he said.

Maribyrnong Truck Action Group (MTAG) president Samantha McArthur spoke about the local experience of this problem. Victoria's Environment Protection Authority put an air quality monitoring station on Francis Street, Yarraville, after much lobbying from the community. The problem with this, she said, is that “the information is averaged over a 24-hour period despite the night-time curfew on trucks. It doesn't show the true high exposure during the daytime.”

Local residents in the audience expressed their concern that there is no effective monitoring of air pollution levels at the times when their children may be travelling to school or in the playground near busy roads.

Dr Merryn Redenbach, a paediatrician and spokesperson for Doctors for the Environment, told the meeting that children are particularly at risk from air pollution because their lungs are still developing.

A VicHealth submission to Victorian parliament last year showed that in 2009-10, Maribyrnong had the highest rate of any municipality in Victoria for hospital admissions for respiratory ailments in the under-16 age group.

Redenbach listed the different kinds of air pollution from burning fossil fuels like coal and liquid transport fuel. She said many of the pollutants have no safe level of exposure, which means that while a small amount will cause some damage, larger quantities will cause more damage. This means that reducing pollution is important.

In June last year, the International Agency for Research on Cancer reclassified diesel exhaust fumes from “probably carcinogenic” to Group 1: “carcinogenic to humans”. This places them "in the same category as substances such as asbestos and cigarette smoke”, Redenbach said.

Redenbach said fine particulate matter (classed as size PM2.5, much smaller than the width of a human hair) has been clearly shown to damage health, but there are no standards for monitoring or reporting on PM2.5 pollution in Australia. Di Natale backed this up, calling for an enforceable limit on PM2.5 pollution levels.

The much smaller, ultrafine particles, size PM0.1, are also a cause for concern.

Redenbach said there is not yet enough evidence to be sure, but the particles are probably absorbed into the blood and travel around the body, where they may cause health problems in other organs.

Di Natale called for four government measures to address air pollution: stronger air quality standards, an aim to get to zero pollution, change the way monitoring is done to identify and monitor those most at risk, and stronger standards on pollution sources (such as an emissions standard for off-road diesel vehicles including trains).

When the inquiry into air pollution released its findings in August, the Greens called for a federal act to protect air quality, analogous to the US Clean Air Act.

Di Natale said Hunter Valley residents in New South Wales were also suffering similar levels of pollution, from coal dust and power station emissions. Many people at the meeting supported the idea of raising money for the community to do their own monitoring, as Hunter Valley residents have done.

McArthur said there had been a 400% rise in truck traffic on some local streets in recent years. One such street, Somerville Road, has 1500 children attending primary schools each day.

She said that one reasonable solution, truck bypass ramps to the Westgate freeway, had been “shovel ready” and would have taken 70% of truck traffic off local streets. But Victorian Premier Denis Napthine “axed plans for that” in May.

She said: “The East-West Link [tollway tunnel] priority for government sucks up the infrastructure dollars.”

MTAG do not expect a solution to be found now for 10-15 years under these priorities.

She said the Port of Melbourne, which generates most of the container truck traffic through Maribyrnong, is expected to double container movements over the next 10 years.

MTAG are calling for all residents to support a protest which will block traffic on Somerville Road from 8am on November 12, outside the Kingsville Primary School.

McArthur said protesters can expect a safe protest for children, as Victorian Police will be redirecting traffic for the half-hour protest.