Australia began this year with one of the highest levels of air pollution in the world. We spent weeks blanketed in a bushfire smoke cloud that turned the sky dark.
Our bushfires shocked the world. Prior to the pandemic taking hold, the worlds eyes were on Australia.
The health effects of the smoke were overwhelming for many of us, and the risk to our health kept us contained inside, well before lockdowns began.
This bushfire smoke contained coarse, fine and ultrafine particles. Ultrafine and fine pollution particles are small enough to enter the human body through the lungs.
They enter the bloodstream and have been linked to heart disease, strokes, diabetes, stillbirth, premature and low birth weight babies.
There are some early studies suggesting a link between small increases in fine particle pollution and increasing the severity and death rates of COVID19.
Even when we do not have orange haze and darkness due to thick smoke blankets, we are still being exposed to harmful air pollution in Australia due to anthropogenic causes.
Whilst the bushfires gave us weeks of record-breaking air pollution, the dominant source of some of the most harmful fine and ultrafine particles in Australia is coal-fired power stations.
The myth of clean coal is exactly that, a myth.
It has been calculated that the air pollution from our bushfires led to over 400 additional deaths. Thousands more will suffer from worsened lung and heart disease.
There will be additional children suffering from asthma. Children will be born at a lower birth weight; more will be born premature.
Air pollution in Australia is responsible for $2.6 billion in health costs. Almost 5000 Australians die every year as a result of our air pollution.
We are likely to see ongoing major air pollution events as a part of future catastrophic bushfires. There is already warming locked in with current carbon dioxide levels and we know this will lead to more frequent extreme weather events. A national response is required to ensure that we minimise the damage.
The National Pollutant Inventory revealed that 25% of Australia's fine particle pollution and all of the Upper Hunter Valley's Sulphur Dioxide comes from our coal-fired power stations.
We have some of the most polluting stations right here in the Hunter Valley.
We already know that Singleton and Muswellbrook are amongst the worst postcodes in the country for air pollution.
There is a combination of coarse particle pollution from open-cut coal mines and land clearing, combined with fine and ultrafine particles from Liddell and Bayswater.
Liddell is inexplicably licenced by the NSW EPA to emit almost three times the international standard for Nitrogen Oxide.
Load-based licencing schemes, where polluters pay an amount based on pollution generated, fails to even include coal mining operations, the biggest commercial contributor to particle pollution.
The Hunter Valley, like some areas of NSW, has a comprehensive air quality monitoring network. We can pinpoint sources of pollutions due to prevailing wind patterns and differing levels at receivers.
Last year there were over 600 exceedances of the air quality standards, well before the bushfire smoke arrived in October/November. Many areas of NSW do not have the quality of monitoring we have though.
The NPI report by Delta Electricity reveals that in 2018-2019 there was a 181% increase in fine particle emissions from Vales Point Power Station.
It has increased 3000% since 2012. Lake Macquarie residents should not be spending the time between bushfire haze and smoke breathing high levels of Sulphur Dioxide and other harmful chemicals from Vales Point.
Many of these aging power stations will see the end of their life as more renewables enter the market, with reducing costs of wind and solar power, and requirements to reduce greenhouse gas emissions continues to accelerate.
In the meantime, we need an air quality monitoring station in Lake Macquarie that accurately measures pollution from Vales Point.
We also need the EPA and Matt Kean to release a clean air strategy for NSW that has the power to reduce pollution from the major contributors.
The NSW EPA has been sitting on a draft policy for many years now, but a draft is meaningless and ineffective.
A clean air strategy could force proper pollution controls onto power stations. It could implement a fairer system of making all polluters pay for their contribution, a much more effective method than small fines, many months after an environmental violation.
We need action urgently. Our communities deserve clean air, and our children will thank us for it.
Dr Bob Vickers is a Singleton GP Obstetrician, a member of Doctors for the Environment Australia and Healthcare for Clean Air