State of the Environment Report title
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2004 Report


icon for atmosphere Issue: Air quality

This issue is discussed for these areas:  

See these indicator results for more detail: | Air emissions |Air quality (indoor) | Air quality (outdoor) | Fire | Transport |

Has air quality changed?

Queanbeyan City Council Area residents had significant reductions in air quality at various times across the current reporting period.

Photograph of Wood smoke from chimney; Credit: Queanbeyean City Council

Woodsmoke from a chimney

Wood smoke from domestic heaters in the colder months was an ongoing localised problem. Smoke and ash from bushfires in January and February 2003 and a dust storm in March 2003 were also responsible for temporarily reducing air quality.

Air quality fluctuated in Queanbeyan City on a seasonal basis. Air quality monitoring equipment was used to monitor air quality in the city across the reporting period. Due to calibration difficulties the only measurement available was for fine particles (as PM10). Not surprisingly, they exceeded the ambient air quality National Environment Protection Measure in January and March 2003.

Emissions from motor vehicles continue to have an impact on outdoor air quality across Australia, although population centres in Queanbeyan City Council Area are unlikely to be large enough to suffer unduly.

What about indoor air quality?

Air pollutants can accumulate within a building. Indoor air quality is of particular importance because this is where the majority of people spend most of their time. However, there is no routine monitoring of indoor air quality in Queanbeyan City Council Area and no data are available for 'normal' buildings. Council staff have authority under a number of state government laws to monitor indoor air quality in buildings throughout the council area.

Are we monitoring adequately?

Air quality monitoring was undertaken across the reporting period in Queanbeyan City. Unfortunately the calibration difficulties meant that the only measurement was for PM10. When fully operational, the equipment would possibly have shown exceedences in ozone (see the discussion of this issue for the ACT). Queanbeyan City Council was one of the councils in the Australian Capital Region that participated in the NSW Environment Protection Authority's Woodsmoke Reduction Program during the reporting period. Long term fully operational monitoring would enable council to assess the outcomes of campaigns to reduce smoky chimneys and to replace solid fuel heating with cleaner fuel sources.

The population of the council area is below threshold requirements for mandatory monitoring under the National Environment Protection Measure for Ambient Air Quality. Despite this, two facilities are required to report to the National Pollutant Inventory each year, as they emit polluting substances to the air. It should be noted however that both facilities are considered to be low emitters of polluting substances relative to other facilities in Australia.

Can we make a difference?

Air quality is an issue where we need to think globally and act locally. Pollutants are not fussy about shire, state or national borders, so small reductions in emissions locally contribute to larger reductions on a global scale.

Government action nationally has most probably improved one aspect of Queanbeyan City Council Area's outdoor air quality—levels of airborne lead. The total ban on incorporating lead into motor vehicle fuels has resulted in a marked reduction in levels of lead in the air in those places where it is measured. Monitoring for lead in the ACT (the only official monitoring site for air pollutants in the Australian Capital Region) was discontinued during the current reporting period, as lead levels are now so low as to not warrant routine monitoring. It can be assumed that lead levels in Queanbeyan City Council Area have followed this same trend.

Council reports that wood smoke problems are the major factor in reduced air quality in its area. Despite efforts to educate residents, a proportion of them are still using their heaters incorrectly. It is widely accepted that improving the way people operate their wood heaters (rather than replacing them) will achieve the biggest improvement in winter air quality. While new wood heaters must meet the upgraded Australian Standard for emissions, if not operated correctly they will still emit excessive levels of smoke. Despite efforts to educate residents, a proportion of them are still using their heaters incorrectly. Ongoing campaigns to ensure that heaters are being used correctly and encouraging residents to change to cleaner fuel sources (where that is available in the shire) will contribute to the reduction of pollutants entering the air locally.

Motor vehicles are a major source of reduced air quality, particularly in urban areas. Private motor vehicles continued to provide the most accessible and popular form of transport for residents of Queanbeyan City Council Area. Journey to work data in the 2001 Census show that over 90% of residents used a car or truck to go to work, either as a driver or a passenger. Vehicle ownership increased over the current reporting period. There was an increase in the number of off-road passenger vehicles, with nearly 9% of all vehicles registered in the council area falling into this category in June 2004. Whether a continued rise in the cost of fuel will see a downward trend during the next reporting period remains to be seen.

More vehicles on the road does not necessarily translate into a proportional increase in air pollution. Newer cars, smaller cars and any vehicles with well-maintained engines and emission control equipment will usually emit smaller quantities of most pollutants. In addition, stricter emissions standards apply to newer vehicles which emit far less pollution than older designs. However all cars using fossil fuels such as petrol or diesel contribute to greenhouse gas emissions.

What does this mean for the future?

Maintaining good air quality is a complex issue that goes beyond any single jurisdiction. Our day-to-day activities have an impact on the atmosphere—not just locally, but also globally.

While residents in Queanbeyan City Council Area can reasonably anticipate continuing to have good outdoor air quality most of the time, there will be periods when it is reduced from events such as wild fires and localised smoke from wood heating for domestic use.

Current reliance on hydrocarbon-based fuels, such as petrol and diesel, together with an ongoing high level of motor vehicle use in the council area and an increasing number of vehicles there, mean car usage will continue to contribute to local air pollution as well as to global climatic changes through the greenhouse effect. It is also important to recognise that the use of 'cleaner' heating sources, such as gas and electricity, to help reduce localised pollution from wood smoke in winter, will contribute to national and global greenhouse emissions as these energy sources are created using fossil fuels. The main lesson for the future is that we must reduce our demand on fossil fuel based energy sources and increase the effort to establish renewable energy sources.

What is PM10?

PM10 refers to fine airborne particles (Particulate Matter) that are smaller than 10 microns in diameter. See the airborne particles section in the indicator description for outdoor air quality for more information.