PM2.5 - no safe level

The NSW Government's “Action for Air” (2009) acknowledges PM2.5 are particularly dangerous: Health research identifies particles of less than 2.5 micrograms (PM2.5) as a particular concern because their smaller size means they can be inhaled deeper into the lungs, and because there is no safe threshold level to use for setting standards.

PM2.5 – most closely linked to health problems
     "Any reduction in exposure to particle pollution will have public health benefits. The health cost of particle air pollution in the NSW Greater Metropolitan is estimated to be around $4.7 billion per year (NSW DEC 2005; Jalaludin et al. 2011). The greatest proportion (>99%) of the health costs accrue from avoiding premature deaths due to long-term exposure to PM2.5."  Source: Draft variation to the National Environment Protection (Ambient Air Quality) Measure, page xi, Executive Summary, published July 2014.

    In Sydney, studies by NSW Heath showed that the pollutant most strongly related to both premature death and increased hospital admissions from heart and respiratory illness was PM2.5 (measured directly or indirectly as nephelometer coefficients which are strongly correlated with PM2.5).  The researchers noted that both particles and death rates are generally higher in winter.

     International research confirms PM2.5 as the pollutant most closely linked with health problems. A review of several hundred studies by the California Air Resources Board concluded that death rates increase by 10% for every additional 10 ug/m3 exposure to PM2.5.

     The NSW Government’s 2009 update of “Action for Air” (AFA) discusses health: in Europe 3.6 million life years are lost annually from particulate pollution, with ozone causing 21,000 cases of hastened mortality.  The estimate of 3.6 million life years lost from PM2.5 is out of date.  A study published June 2009 concluded: “
In Europe PM2.5 pollution is associated with more than 492,000 premature deaths, corresponding to a loss of almost 4.9 million years of life”.

In other words, PM2.5 are a pollutant with no safe level, that (in Europe) cause 20 times as many premature deaths as the next worst pollutant (ozone).  The sensible strategy would be to spend substantially more resources reducing PM2.5 than other pollutants.  

Sadly, the approach in “Action for Air” is based on politics, not logic.  For example, a single new woodheater installed in Sydney has estimated health costs of $4,000 per year.  Although this is only half the costs of an existing woodheater (see right column), it is hard to understand why anyone who knows and understand the true health costs, or the amount of pollution emitted by a new woodheater, would want to use one.  

Although several local councils do not permit new heaters to be installed, we need a moratorium on the installation of new woodheaters until an appropriate health-based standard has been developed.


Video by one of the world's leading experts and original researchers on the health effects of particle pollution - C. Arden Pope III. Made in 2007, quite long (about one hour) but worth watching.

Leading Air Pollution Expert on Fine Particles

Sydney: health costs > $200 per kg PM2.5
“Action for Air” notes that air pollution causes between 640 and 1400 deaths every year in Sydney, citing a NSW Health study published in 2005, which also estimated health costs as $132 per kg of PM10 emissions.  Converting back to PM2.5 (the pollutant most closely related to health problems in the studies on which this research was based), the cost per kg of PM2.5 emissions in Sydney exceeds $200.

Sources of Sydney’s PM2.5 - Emissions Inventory for 2008 (published 2012, by the NSW EPA)




        The NSW DECC Emissions Inventory (2007) shows that domestic-commercial solid fuel combustion (wood heating) emits 4,503 tonnes of PM2.5 per year in Sydney (34.3% of all PM2.5 emissions), compared to 1,152 for industrial off-road vehicles and equipment (8.8%), 840 tonnes for on-road light duty diesel vehicles (6.4%), 807 tonnes for industrial crushing/grinding/separating works (6.2%), 797 for petrol-fuelled passenger cars (6.1%) and 681 for heavy duty diesel vehicles (5.2%).

With 4,503 tonnes of PM2.5 emitted by Sydney’s 106,100 woodheaters (4.3% of household using wood as the main heating, 2.2% as a secondary source), at $200 per kg of PM2.5 emissions, the annual health cost is more than $8,000 per woodheater per year.


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