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 | Landuse | Transport |

Has air quality changed?

Smoke from bushfires in January and February 2003 and wood smoke from domestic fireplaces created significant problems with air quality for residents in Tumbarumba Shire during the current reporting period. There is no way of knowing if there has been any change in air quality for better or worse since the last reporting period, as no routine monitoring is undertaken in the shire.

Domestic usage of wood heaters in the shire was high during its relatively cold winters, and as no natural gas was available, there were limited alternatives to their use. Although the smoke from these fires is often trapped under inversion layers, council received relatively few complaints related to wood smoke from heaters.

Emissions from motor vehicles continue to have an impact on outdoor air quality across Australia, although population centres in Tumbarumba Shire 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 Tumbarumba Shire 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 shire.

Are we monitoring adequately?

Air quality is not routinely monitored in Tumbarumba Shire. The population of the shire is below threshold requirements for mandatory monitoring under the National Environment Protection Measure for Ambient Air Quality. Despite this, three 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 these 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 Tumbarumba Shire'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 Tumbarumba Shire have followed this same trend.

Motor vehicles are a major source of reduced air quality, particularly in urban areas. Limited public transport options combined with the rural nature of much of Tumbarumba Shire ensure that motor vehicles remain the only form of transport available to residents. Journey to work data in the 2001 Census show that nearly 80% of residents used a car to go to work, either as a driver or a passenger. It should be noted however that 13.5% of Tumbarumba Shire residents walked to work. Vehicle ownership climbed over the current reporting period. The increase in all classes of trucks may reflect increased activities associated with the timber industry.

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.

Sporadic air pollution due to smoke from fuel reduction burns or wildfires is inevitable in Tumbarumba Shire because of the high proportion of its land located in conservation reserves and state forests. While efforts are made to minimise the smoke effects of fuel reduction burns, smoke from wildfires is unmanageable.

As Tumbarumba Shire Council reported problems with wood smoke, it will need to educate residents where possible to minimise the problem. There is undoubtedly a large proportion of the population in the shire using solid fuel as their main source of heating. 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. Ongoing campaigns to ensure that heaters are being used correctly will contribute to the reduction of pollutants entering the air locally.

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 Tumbarumba Shire 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 fuel reduction burns, or from localised wood smoke from domestic heating.

Current reliance on hydrocarbon-based fuels, such as petrol and diesel, together with an ongoing high level of motor vehicle use in the shire 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.